The COVID-19 pandemic is acting as an accelerator for food insecurity in conflict zones, impacting food availability, access, and humanitarian assistance, as well as potentially giving rise to new social tensions as a result of the economic consequences of the lockdown.
Literature shows that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between food insecurity, economic crisis, and conflict. Conflicts cause disruption of food systems and markets, leading to rises in food prices, scarcity of water, fuel, and food itself. Moreover, as civilians are deprived of their income, they simply cannot afford to buy food even when it is available. The destruction of infrastructure makes it difficult to transport food, while the destruction of agricultural land as well as the conscription or the escape of farmers makes the production of basic staples impossible. In addition, food can become a weapon of war, through blockades and the deliberate starving of a population, as well as through the selected delivery of aid. But the nexus between conflict and food security works in both ways: rising food insecurity is proven to contribute to conflict, especially in the Middle East.
It is not a coincidence that, in the MENA region, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq are identified by the World Food Programme as among the major food crises of 2019, with Yemen and Syria ranking among the 10 worst food crises in 2019 for number of people in crisis or worse in the world. These countries are also the most exposed to the consequences of the pandemic.
With an estimated 15.9 million people (53% of the total population) in crisis or worse (IPC phase 3 or above, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification), Yemen is the most food-insecure country and the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Despite being the poorest country in the region already before the war, conflict has inevitably aggravated a situation of chronic distress. In Yemen, food has also become a weapon of war: periods of siege and de facto blockades such as the one imposed by Saudi Arabia in November 2017 after a Houthi-fired missile fell on Riyadh, put an enormous strain on the availability of food. This is especially true in the areas around the ports of Hodeida and Saleef, through which flows 80% of all Yemen’s imports. For a country which, even before the crisis, imported around 90% of its food, inspection mechanisms and congestions at ports cause a major disruption to the food pipeline. The restrictions introduced by the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition aimed at stopping the smuggling of weapons by the Houthis, cause delays of weeks before goods can be offloaded. In the same way, the Houthis have been accused of hijacking part of the WFP’s monthly food aid to help fund the conflict. As the conflict entered its sixth year in March 2020, the pandemic adds to the damages to infrastructures, fuel shortages, and bureaucracy, severely restricting humanitarian access: as a result of mounting impediments, in April 2020, the WFP shifted from monthly to bimonthly food assistance distributions for beneficiaries in Houthi-controlled areas, with the result of a 50 percent reduction in assistance. Weighing on the population’s food insecurity is also the economic shock caused by the conflict and complicated by the lowering of remittances from the Gulf: decreases in government revenues leading to a stop in payments of public sector salaries, and shortages of foreign exchange, made it impossible for many Yemenis to afford the purchase of basic amounts of food. Making things worse, weather and climate conditions add to the crisis: swarms of locusts in early 2020 and exceptional flooding in April severely damaged livestock and crops, besides leaving many Yemenis with no home to stay in.
In Syria, too, the pandemic adds to insecurity due to the conflict, economic shocks, and weather extremes as the main drivers of acute food insecurity for over one third of the population (9.3 million on a total population of 18.3 million people). Active conflict zones such as the northwest, northeast, and the south, in particular the Dara’a governorate, are the most food-insecure, also because of the large displacements brought about by the recent escalation of hostilities. The acute economic crisis created by the cumulative effect of US and EU sanctions, the collapse of the business empire of Rami Makhlouf, and the spillover from the economic crisis in Lebanon, caused the value of the Syrian pound to plunge, resulting in higher food prices and lower purchase power. According to the WFP, in April the price for the national average reference food basket had increased 111 percent in a year. The prospective closure of the two border crossings of Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh, through which UN humanitarian aid is delivered from Turkey to opposition-held northwest Syria, is bound to precipitate an already dire humanitarian situation, as Russia and China support Damascus’ attempt to exploit and divert aid. Unprecedented flooding following heavy rains in March in the Hasakeh governorate or, before that, huge fires especially in the areas around Idlib, caused a severe loss of crops, which translated into further food insecurity.
Finally, in Iraq, chronic instability has been hampering food security for years. As the country is still recovering from recurring rounds of conflict, not least of all the devastation brought by the Islamic State, the fragility of state institutions – in a country where the population is highly dependent on state intervention for fulfilling their food needs – represents a major cause of concern. Even though the number of those in need of urgent food assistance fell over the last year, the situation remains precarious for refugees and displaced people, while the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of vulnerability. The disruption of global food supply chains put a severe strain on the country’s imports of food, as it normally imports about 50 percent of its food needs. In addition, the collapse in oil prices inflicted severe pain to the state budget, as it depends on oil revenues for 90 percent of its total. This, coupled with the pre-existent economic crisis due to corruption and the mismanagement of state resources, resulted in huge economic shock.
Three months after the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire to focus on the fight against the pandemic, it is evident that his appeal is destined to remain a cry in the desert. So far, warring parties have not given up on hostilities, while humanitarian organizations are facing restricted access to their areas of operation. This, coupled with the disastrous economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, is exacerbating fragilities and strongly impacting food security in conflict zones. As Yemen descends to the brink of famine, Syria struggles with out-of-control food prices and the eruption of new protests, while Iraq is exposed to rising risks of food insecurity as a result of weak governance and economic shocks. As a result of the growth in vulnerability, the MENA region risks being trapped in a vicious circle of social and economic distress and conflict, seriously elevating the risk of a further wave of regional instability.