When the Muslims of Lebanon sat down for their first iftar of Ramadan tonight, the meal in front of them will have cost much more than six weeks ago.
The Middle Eastern country, already mired in economic crisis and battling inflation before war broke out in Ukraine, now finds itself grappling with even higher price hikes for wheat and coconut oil. cooking.
“In 2021, when prices were already rising, I was using the same oil to cook multiple dishes,” Mona Amsha, from Beirut, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week. “Now I can’t even do that.”
Fears over wheat imports – more than 60% of which came from Ukraine last year – are all the more acute as Lebanon’s reserves are limited. The huge explosion that ripped through the port of Beirut in August 2020 and killed more than 200 people also destroyed the main grain silos. As a result, the country is believed to have enough wheat to last only about six weeks.
The government has said it is trying to secure fresh imports from India, the United States and Kazakhstan, which would mean the grain travels much longer distances on increasingly expensive sea routes. Meanwhile, according to Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hassan: “There is no wheat crisis today in Lebanon.”
But shortages are already beginning to appear on supermarket shelves; some bakeries are rationing bread and the price hikes since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are evident, says Bujar Hoxha, country director of Care International.
“From February 24 to March 21, we saw an overall 14% increase in food prices,” he says. “For bread, for example, it’s 27%. For white sugar, it’s 72%. For sunflower oil, it’s 83%. Fears are also growing over the cost of fuel, essential for the supply of electricity and water.
Few segments of society are more vulnerable to these changes than Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees, most of whom live in abject poverty and depend on food aid. Many have fled Russian bombardment in their home countries and are now preparing to feel the ripple effects of another of Vladimir Putin’s wars.
“When you think of poverty, I always try to use sea level,” says Hoxha. “If there are Lebanese living below the poverty line, we still have to imagine that the Syrian refugees are at minus 20 at sea level on that poverty line.”
The decision of some countries to ban exports has exacerbated the problem. Last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati asked Algeria to exempt him from a sugar export ban imposed in mid-March. Hoxha says Care tried to buy vegetable oil from Turkey but couldn’t.
The next few months could therefore be difficult, and hopes for the holy month are decidedly low. “It will be one of the toughest Ramadans Lebanon has faced,” Hoxha said. “We thought it was last year. We thought a year before that. But this one will be particularly difficult.
Worst drought in four decades; hunger so widespread that starvation could develop within months; a resurgence of violence by jihadist terrorists seeking to overthrow the fragile government: even before Russian tanks landed in Ukraine on February 24, Somalia had more than enough on its plate. Now, with the invasion crippling the world’s breadbasket, this East African country faces another challenge: soaring commodity prices.
“A week ago the 20 liter jerry can of cooking oil was $25, today it’s around $50 [£38]. A liter of petrol used to cost $0.64 and today it costs around $1.80 – that’s crazy,” Mohamed Osman, a shopkeeper, told Agence France-Presse this week.
In Somalia, where an estimated 1.4 million children under the age of five are acutely malnourished and more than 4 million people depend on emergency food aid, price hikes, regardless of their magnitude, will have an impact. And although it is not as dependent as some countries on wheat imports, Somalia has many other reasons to fear the ripple effect of the war in Ukraine.
Petroc Wilton, spokesman for the UN World Food Program (WFP), said most of the agency’s food aid in Somalia was provided through cash transfers, which were highly vulnerable to market fluctuations. “Any major impact on the purchasing power of the people we serve due to sudden price changes is a real concern, especially in the context of this very, very severe drought,” he says.
The drought in the country has been intensifying since October 2020, and the UN has warned that Somalia could slide into famine this year if the rains expected in the coming weeks are not abundant enough. In 2011, the last time Somalia experienced famine, nearly 260,000 people were estimated to have died.
Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, food prices had already risen due to drought, livestock dying or declining in quality, and harvests of grains such as sorghum well below long-term averages. “The medium-term effects of the Ukrainian crisis are just another cause for very serious concern,” says Wilton.
WFP Somalia is “on the verge” of receiving the last shipment of food – a delivery of yellow split peas – which left the port of Odessa before it was forced to close, Wilton adds. “After that, we currently have no visibility on the next planned shipments. So yes, there is real concern that the scarcity of some of these products entering Somalia and the region could drive up prices.
For decades, tens of millions of Egyptians have been able to go to their local bakery and buy subsidized flatbread for just pennies. Bread is so central to the Egyptian way of life that it is known as Ouch – literally, “life”.
Soon, however, this fixed price may rise as the government seeks to respond to rising wheat prices resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, is particularly vulnerable to the price shock, and consumers are already seeing steep increases in the cost of unsubsidized products.
Last year, Egypt imported more than 70% of its wheat from Russia or Ukraine, according to the UN, so the first challenge for the state is to seek alternative suppliers far from the Black Sea. This week, France’s agriculture minister, for his part, said his country would ‘stand with ‘Egypt’ to make sure it gets the wheat it needs in the months to come. “.
But there are problems with most alternatives. Wheat from France has in the past been considered too wet. Other major exporters such as Australia or Canada incur significant additional costs in terms of transport, especially in times of high fuel prices.
In an interview last month, Supply Minister Ali El-Moselhy implored Egyptians not to worry, saying the country’s stocks were sufficient for at least four months and that there were ” political will and vision to maintain wheat reserves”. The local harvest, he added, according to Bloomberg, is expected to yield 1 million tonnes more than expected.
However, with the average price per tonne of imported wheat about $100 higher now than last year, many also expect the government to act on subsidized breads. The program had already been a target before the invasion of Ukraine; last year, President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi said: “It is not realistic for me to sell 20 loaves of bread for the same price as a cigarette… This must stop. Now, such a move seems inevitable.
But in a country where around a third of the population lives below the poverty line, it remains to be seen whether the government is prepared for the social ramifications. “When prices go up and the poor cannot feed their families, they will be on the streets,” warned Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, last weekend. “One thing we know about problems in one place is that they travel. It does not stop there.
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