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Russia-Ukraine war: Middle East at 'breaking point' over food prices, says UN

Soaring costs for food staples in import-dependent Middle East countries are stretching people's resilience to 'breaking point', says World Food Programme
Displaced Yemenis at a camp in Hays district, Hodeidah
Yemenis displaced by fighting receive food aid and supplies to meet their basic needs at a camp in Hays district in Hodeidah province on 29 March, 2022 (AFP)

Soaring costs for food staples in import-dependent Middle East and North African countries are stretching people's resilience to a "breaking point", with Russia's invasion of Ukraine adding to their woes, a United Nations agency has warned.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said in a statement on Thursday that Russia's offensive had contributed to surging costs of flour and vegetable oil ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan - when people across the region typically gather in the evening for meals with friends and family to break the daily fast.

"We are extremely concerned about the millions of people in this region who are already struggling to access enough food because of a toxic combination of conflict, climate change and the economic aftermath of Covid-19," said Corinne Fleischer, WFP's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"This crisis is creating shock waves in the food markets that touch every home in this region. No one is spared."


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According to the agency, the cost of the basic food basket in Lebanon - the minimum amount of food a family needs per month - has soared by 351 percent in the past year.

Meanwhile, Syria saw a 97 percent hike, while in Yemen the cost of a basic food basket increased by 81 percent in the past year. The three countries, all reliant on food imports, also reported sharp currency depreciation.

Russia and Ukraine produce about a quarter of the world's wheat. The MENA region is particularly dependent on wheat imports from Black Sea ports, which have halted shipping since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Lebanon imports 52 percent of its wheat from Russia. As a result of the blast at the Beirut port in August 2020 which destroyed city's grain silos, the country's infrastructure can only hold about one month's supply of wheat.

Syria relies heavily on Russia for its wheat supplies, and domestic production has decreased drastically from its pre-war level.

Damascus has maintained that its wheat supplies are sufficient, and denied reports there were any issues with food supplies. But the country's Council of Ministers announced earlier this month that public spending would be slashed, and basic goods such as wheat and oil would be rationed in anticipation of supply shocks.

Meanwhile, fears are growing among aid agencies over the possible impact a disruption to wheat supplies will have on Yemen, which imports more than 30 percent of its wheat from Russia.

"The Ukraine crisis makes a bad funding situation worse. There are immediate humanitarian needs that demand attention. Donors have in recent years helped us provide food to millions in the region," said Fleischer.

"Now the situation is critical and it's time to be even more generous."

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