Climate Change Raises the Specter of Food Insecurity in Gulf Countries

The changing climate portends more extreme weather events that are likely to hurt global food supplies and raise prices. While the rich countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are currently food secure due to their strong buying power, they are too vulnerable to supply fluctuations because of near total food import dependency, growing population rates, and declining freshwater and rainfall to be able to boost domestic food production.
Climate Change Raises the Specter of Food Insecurity in Gulf Countries

The 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report provides a sobering view of an anticipated rise in hunger and malnutrition in the world as climate change and extreme weather swings negatively affect food production. While access to food is a problem in some of the poorest regions of the world, the rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) remain extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in world food supplies, global crop failures, and higher prices given that they import between 80 and 90 percent of their food. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), climate change will adversely impact crop productivity and variability in many areas of the world, which could directly affect access to food in the Arabian Peninsula.

The stress from climate change on global food supply chains, complete food import dependency, growing domestic populations, diminishing water resources, and declining rainfalls in the Arabian Peninsula are expected to make food security in the GCC region even more urgent in the future. With these issues in mind, food security has become one of the main elements of national security for all GCC countries.

Food security strategies

Even though most of the GCC members have been ranked as the most food secure in the world in recent years largely due to their high buying power, they are increasingly concerned about a less certain future as global food prices remain susceptible to extreme weather events and increased cases of crop failures. The changing climate and the food crisis of 2008 propelled food security policies of some GCC members to the forefront, demanding an increased focus on measures to ensure food security for the future.

Increasing domestic food production, use of modern farming methods, diversification of crops, and investments in agriculture abroad are foundations of food security strategies of the GCC countries. Minister of State for Food Security of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mariam Al Muhairi, stressed in an interview with Gulf News that her country cannot bank only on its ability to import food no matter how expensive it is. “We need to look into other innovative systems on how we can start producing food more locally and change the way we consume food as well,” she said. Other countries in the region widely share this sentiment.

All GCC countries sense the need to address food waste, which is a common problem in the region. Heavy subsidization of food consumption has made food cheap. And the value of food is not necessarily measured from the standpoint of its nutritious content. Because of the prevalence of fast and processed foods, rates of obesity are on the rise in the region. At the same time, malnourishment remains a problem across poor segments of the population in the GCC.

In terms of production, key components of food security strategies in the GCC countries include efficient and sustainable development of domestic agriculture, aquaculture (growing, breeding, and harvesting of plants and animals in water environments), and even fisheries. Given the scarcity of arable land in the region, greenhouse farming is seen as one of the solutions to growing food. For example, relying on cutting-edge and efficient farming technology, UAE’s integration of a proof-of-concept greenhouse, a system that synchronizes temperature and humidity levels through computer controls, has yielded ten times more food per meter. Moreover, compared to conventional farming, this modern greenhouse is 32 times more water-efficient. The UAE aims to boost a closed-system agriculture (using closed spaces to grow food) and aquaculture as part of its food security strategy.

Oman has a set of ambitious goals to increase domestic food production, attract investment to its agricultural and fisheries sectors through the Oman Food Investment Holding Company, enhance the capacity to preserve and store food, and improve food consumption habits. Its strategy includes supporting new companies in the country that cultivate and produce crops, meat, and dairy products. Oman hopes not only to secure its domestic food supplies but also to boost its export potential.

Qatar’s National Food Security Program of 2008 includes the improvement of agricultural practices and food processing, use of innovative agricultural technologies, and adoption of advanced irrigation systems. One of Qatar’s ambitious and unique undertakings, called the Sahara Forest Project located near Doha in the middle of the Arabian Desert, promotes the production of food, water, and renewable energy. It aims to store carbon in arid lands. The project uses seawater and sunlight to grow vegetables, while at the same time producing fresh water. It also supports cultivation of salt tolerant plants, such as halophytes, and algae for use as nutriceuticals, biofuels, and as animal and fish fodder.

Bahrain’s strategy focuses on prioritizing crops that have a comparative advantage, high value, and low water demand. Kuwait’s approach is to reach self-sufficiency by 2040 through expansion of agricultural lands in deserts, introduction of early warning systems for weather changes, support of water treatment and desalination, and adoption of best agricultural practices suitable for drylands.

Similar to its neighbors, Saudi Arabia emphasizes domestic food production, diversification of food sources, and storage. Saudi Arabia discontinued its massive domestic wheat production after it proved to be inefficient, costing the kingdom billions of dollars, and taking a toll on its scarce water supplies. The country’s approach now is diversification of crops that are less water-intensive.

While all GCC countries strive to boost domestic food production, investments in overseas food producers have also gone up. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE began investing in agricultural companies in Europe, Australasia, and North America, after engaging in less successful efforts to grow food in Africa, where they were met with distrust and encountered infrastructure and security challenges. With limited arable land and diminishing water supplies and precipitation in the region, which is expected to get worse under the changing climate, overseas investments in food production provide an extra insurance policy for dryland nations.

Water constraints

Underlying a successful domestic food production is proper water management. This continues to be a major challenge in the region. On the one hand, the GCC countries realize that the Achilles’ heel of their domestic food production and long-term food security is dwindling water supplies. However, in practice, the general attitude to water use has been that it is an abundant resource. Perhaps surprisingly, for one of the most water-scarce and dry regions of the world, domestic water consumption in the GCC is one of the highest in the world.

According to the FAO, freshwater is overexploited in the Arabian Peninsula by over 500 percent. Water is heavily used for agriculture, industry, and drinking, those uses constituting nearly 77 percent of available water. There is no replenishment once the water is used up. Severe shortages of water could lead to further deterioration of agricultural production, land degradation, increased desertification, and food and drinking water crises in the region.

Desalination of water, which already constitutes about 63 percent of water supplies in the GCC, will not be enough to keep up with the rising needs of the growing population in the region and provide adequate amounts of water for agriculture and industry at the same time. Besides, desalination is heavily energy-intensive, producing millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year, and is expensive to build.

The key problem with overexploitation and high consumption of water in the GCC is generous water subsidies, making it cheap for the public to buy, but costly to produce. Providing no incentives to conserve water, consumption levels will continue to remain high, which is unsustainable in the long run. While it is a politically and socially sensitive issue to eliminate the subsidies, a system of setting incremental water tariffs on high water consumers may be necessary to curb excessive consumption and to save water. Importantly, wastewater re-use is not a common practice in the region, where less than 20 percent of wastewater is recycled. Recycling treated wastewater could, however, provide a steady source of water for agriculture, which consumes huge amounts of it across the region.

Improving the efficiency of irrigation methods will be critical to sustainable domestic food production and help cut heavy water consumption in the GCC. For example, a drip irrigation system, which uses a small amount of water at frequent intervals and reaches roots of the plants, saves between 30 and 70 percent of water, with production rates reaching up to 40 percent. Proper maintenance of irrigation networks and water transport lines also plays a major role in saving water.

While encouragement of farmers to invest in and utilize modern irrigation systems, such as sprinkler or drip, is important, it may not be enough for farmers to make a switch from traditional water-inefficient irrigation methods. According to a World Bank report on food and water security in the Arab world, modern irrigation represents only about 20 percent of all irrigated lands in most Arab countries, largely because of the inability of farmers to finance more expensive new irrigation technologies. In addition, many farmers simply do not know how to use such technologies. Thus, there should be government-driven training programs and public awareness campaigns, as well as tangible tax exemptions or other financial incentives, for farmers to shift to new irrigation systems.

Without addressing the efficient use of water in the entire chain of domestic food production, the GCC countries’ strategies to provide food security may not succeed in the long term and may end up exhausting the most vital resource for their survival – fresh water.