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BEIRUT, Jul 22 2014 (IPS) - A declining economy and a severe drought have raised concerns in Lebanon over food security as the country faces one of its worst refugee crises, resulting from the nearby Syria war, and it is these refugees and impoverished Lebanese border populations that are most vulnerable to this new threat.
A severe drought has put the Lebanese agricultural sector at risk. According to the Meteorological Department at Rafik Hariri International Airport, average rainfall in 2014 is estimated at 470 mm, far below annual averages of 824 mm.
The drought has left farmers squabbling over water. “We could not plant this year and our orchards are drying up, we are only getting six hours of water per week,” says Georges Karam, the mayor of Zabougha, a town located in the Bekfaya area in Lebanon.
The drought has resulted in a substantial decline in agricultural production throughout the country. “The most affected products are fruits and vegetables, the prices of which have increased, thus affecting economic access of the poor and vulnerable populations,”says Maurice Saade, Senior Agriculture Economist at the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Department.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. Although most households in Lebanon are considered food secure, lower income households are vulnerable to inflationary trends in food items because they tend to spend a larger share of their disposable income on staples, explains Saade.
Lebanon’s poverty pockets are generally concentrated in the north (Akkar and Dinnyeh), Northern Bekaa (Baalbek and Hermel) and in the south, as well as the slums located south of Beirut. These areas currently host the largest number areas of refugee population, fleeing the nearby Syria war.
According to Clemens Breisinger, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Lebanon currently imports about 90 percent of its food needs. “This means meant that the drought’s impact should be limited in term of the food available on the market,” he says.
However, populations residing in Lebanon’s impoverished areas are still at risk, especially those who are not financially supported by relatives (as is the custom in Lebanon) or benefit from state aid or from local charities operating in border areas. Lebanese host populations are most likely the most vulnerable to food insecurity, explains Saade.
According to the UNHCR, there are just over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. While the food situation is still manageable thanks to efforts of international donors who maintain food supplies to the population, “these rations are nonetheless always threatened by the lack of donor funding,” Saade stresses. In addition, refugee populations are largely dependent on food aid, because they are essentially comprised of women and children, with little or no access to the job market.
Given that Lebanon depends to a large extent on food imports, mostly from international markets, maintaining food security also depends on the ability of lower income groups to preserve their purchasing power as well as the stability of these external markets.
“This means that any major domestic or regional security or political disruptions which undermine economic growth and job creation could lead to higher poverty levels and associated food insecurity,” says Saade.
In addition any spikes in international food prices, such as those witnessed in 2008, could lead to widespread hunger among vulnerable populations.
Breisinger believes that despite increased awareness of the international community, the factors leading to a new food crisis are still present.Increased demand for food generally, fuel prices, the drop in food reserves, certain government policies as well as the diversion of grain and oilseed crops for biofuel production are elements that put pressure on the food supply chain and can eventually contribute to hunger in certain vulnerable countries.
To avoid such a risk, some countries have implemented specific measures such as building grain reserves. “I am not sure how Lebanon has reacted so far,” says Breisinger. With little government oversight and widespread corruption, Lebanon’s vulnerability to food insecurity has been compounded by unforgiving weather conditions, a refugee crisis and worsening economic conditions which, if left unattended, could spiral out of control.
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