A photo taken on March 18, 2018, shows a Yemeni child looking out at buildings that were damaged in an airstrike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP via Getty Images)

UNICEF Warns Millions of Kids at Risk From Food Crisis Sparked by Ukraine War

"The number of malnourished children is likely to drastically increase," said UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

In addition to threatening the lives of millions of Ukrainians, Russia's war on Ukraine is jeopardizing "the fragile nutritional status of children in the Middle East and North Africa," a United Nations agency warned Thursday.

"The world should not forget the millions of children in Middle East and North Africa."

Since the February invasion, world leaders have raised alarm about "a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system," as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it last month.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) highlighted Thursday that war-related import disruptions are causing food shortages amid high prices--which could imperil kids across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

"With ongoing conflicts, political instability, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine, the region is witnessing unprecedented hikes in food prices coupled with low purchasing power," said Adele Khodr, UNICEF's regional director, in a statement. "The number of malnourished children is likely to drastically increase."

While emphasizing health and hunger concerns for six nations in particular--Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen--UNICEF warned of impacts across the MENA region, which imports over 90% of its food.

Guterres noted last month that "Russia and Ukraine represent more than half of the world's supply of sunflower oil and about 30% of the world's wheat," and "Ukraine alone provides more than half of the World Food Program's wheat supply."

University of Georgia historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of the book Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World, spoke with Mother Jones reporter Tom Philpott last month about the impacts of the war in the world's breadbasket--including for the MENA region.

Much of that wheat goes to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia--places like the Philippines, which are highly dependent on foreign grain for people's survival. And it's used in many forms. It's in Nigerian noodles, it's in Egyptian baguettes, and it's in the Algerian flatbread. These are places where something like 30 to 40% of average household expenditures go to food. And so, a doubling of price in this short amount of time is going to be chaos, just like [the price hikes of the early 2010s] had something to do with Arab Spring. The blocking off of Black Sea wheat flows because of the war is going to mean starvation. Starvation may be too strong of a word, but certainly household collapse in much of North Africa and the Middle East. And then on top of that, there's the Covid pandemic and a drought in Algeria and Morocco. It's going to cause so much pain.

Already, across the MENA region, only 36% of children between the ages of six and 23 months receive the diets they need to grow in a healthy way, according to UNICEF. Nearly a fifth of children are stunted--or too short for their ages--and 7% suffer from wasting, or being too thin for their height.

Those figures are far higher in some of the countries that UNICEF pointed to Thursday. In war-torn Yemen, for example, 45% of children are stunted. That's also the case for over a third of children in Sudan, where 13.6% of kids also suffer from wasting.

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"UNICEF continues to coordinate the nutrition response in the region," said Khodr. "We call to consolidate efforts to urgently deliver and scale up prevention, early detection, and treatment of malnutrition to address the needs of millions of children and women, especially in countries most impacted by crises. This is critical to prevent a massive malnutrition crisis for children in the region."

Khodr added that "we stand ready to facilitate the revamping of the nutrition response in the region to further strengthen links with agriculture, social protection, education, and water and sanitation sectors to reach more children in need."

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