The Happy Arab News Service

Friday, March 21, 2008

Bread and Martyrs

Last updated: April 10, 2008

March 11, 2008

Global warming comes to the Middle East . . .

DUBAI, 11 March 2008 (IRIN) - A report by UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), entitled Climate Change: Implications for Agriculture in the Near East, has said the food security of those who are poor, malnourished or dependent on local food production could be adversely affected by climate change.

“Climate change will affect food security in all its four dimensions - food availability, food accessibility, food stability and food utilisation,” Will Killmann, chairman of FAO’s working group on climate change, told IRIN on 10 March.

“Food security is particularly threatened in the already vulnerable regions - sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and parts of the Middle East,” he said.

Shifts in rainfall patterns could affect crops, particularly rice, in many countries in the region, said the FAO report, which has singled out Yemen as being particularly at risk because of its endemic poverty, rapidly growing population and acute water shortages.

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Recent incidents in Egypt highlight the vulnerability of the Middle East region to the vagaries of reduced agricultural production and the rise in food prices: Two people were killed as they fought over a place in a queue for cheap, subsidised bread in Helwan, southern Cairo; Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al Ahram reported that a man doused a bakery with petrol before setting it alight after its owner refused to sell him bread; and a few days later, on 11 March, Al Ahram reported that the number of people who had died in bread queues (so-called “bread martyrs”) had reached 10.

Egypt, the world’s second-largest importer of wheat, subsidises wheat, flour and bread at an annual cost of US$2.74bn to the state (New York Times, 17 January 2008). Economists have said the subsidies distort the economy and some within the government have reportedly been talking of a reduction in basic food subsidies. The last time the Egyptian government attempted to do that - in 1977 - there were street riots in which the police killed over 70 protesters. Bread prices in Egypt increased by 36.5 percent from February 2007 to February 2008.

In the past few weeks, there have been food riots or demonstrations - albeit on a smaller scale - against rising food prices in a number of countries in the region, including Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. A number of people have died in clashes with security forces.

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March 11, 2008

One by One

As Yemen's water basins are collapsing one by one, next it will be Yemen itself to go down.

BEIT HUJAIRA, Yemen (Reuters) - Black-clad women trudge across a stony plateau in the Yemeni highlands to haul water in yellow plastic cans from wells that will soon dry up.

"We come here three or four times a day," says Adiba Sena, as another woman draws water six metres (20 feet) to the surface and pours it into jerry cans lashed to her grey donkey. "We use it to clean, cook, wash -- we have no pipes that reach us."

These women are at the sharp end of what Yemen's water and environment minister describes as a collapse of national water resources so severe it cannot be reversed, only delayed at best.

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"We have nothing, God help us," fumed Husseina al-Qabri, 45, who is weary of her daily forays to the well. "We want water, electricity, a school. I want to learn to read."

Beit Hujaira lies in the water basin of Amran, a parched province just north of Sanaa, the capital.

"Amran and Sanaa are probably very close to collapse," said Ramon Scoble, team leader of an Amran water project run by the German aid agency GTZ.

"Saada in the far north may be next in line. Further south, the basin in Taiz collapsed almost 10 years ago and people have been relying on renewable resources," he said, meaning fresh rainfall as opposed to water stored in the ground.

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Yemen was long envied for its rainfall, terraced fields and irrigation channels. The Romans called it Arabia Felix, a name that mocks the unhappy modern reality of water scarcity.

Desalinating sea water would be costly for an inland city like Sanaa, perched 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) above sea level, with higher peaks barring any pipeline route from the Red Sea.

Millions of people might eventually have to move from arid highland cities to Yemen's Tihama coastal plain, which has more water potential, but is also hot, humid and prone to malaria.

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The women lugging water in Beit Hujaira are victims of the worsening water crunch. Qabri said she had kidney problems, a complaint shared by many in the village and in Yemen generally.

"There are people aged 20 with kidney stones because they simply don't drink enough water," said Scoble.


It's not clear to what degree Yemen's mounting crisis is due to the global warming, but in any case the global warming can only be exacerbating trends that have started in the region decades ago. What makes Yemen special is the apparent inevitability of its eventual self destruction. Thus Yemen provides us with an opportunity to have a good look at the general pattern of a classic Malthusian collapse in an Arab society overwhelmed by backwardness and demographics. Such an opportunity is all too more valuable given that Yemen may be soon followed by at least one other Arab country.

Last updated: March 21, 2008

Inflation in Jordan was up by 9 percent in February alone after the government decided to completely abolish fuel subsidies. The national budget was crumbling under the pressure of rising food and oil prices on the world markets that rendered the system of fuel and food subsidies unsupportable. According to the MEED, removing fuel subsidies has led to price hikes across a wide range of commodities.

Inflation in Jordan increased by 9 per cent in February after the government scrapped fuel subsidies, according to a survey by the Department of Statistics.

Fuel and lighting costs were 22 per cent higher than in February 2007 after retailers were allowed to set their own prices for petrol, diesel, kerosene and gas on 8 February.

The prices of some popular foodstuffs increased even more quickly. Eggs and dairy products were 31 per cent more expensive than in February 2007, and cereals were 23 per cent higher, even though the government continued to subsidise wheat.

Fat and cooking oils rose 21 per cent and fruit was 19 per cent more expensive.

The government increased the salaries of all 600,000 civil servants and members of the armed forces by up to JD50 ($71) a month at the start of February.


Jordan is just one of a whole dozen of Arab countries hit by rising food and oil prices, but it was the first to address the problem in such a direct and bold way. The king personally intervened and threw his weight behind the cabinet as he was encouraging ministers to act quickly before the situation gets out of control.

It's unlikely that Jordan remains for long the only state in the region forced to take such drastic measures while risking more confrontation between the regime and the population. Morocco, whose agriculture has been ravaged by two consecutive years of a severe drought, may be the next in line to move on subsidies. More bread martyrs may be already on the way.


One of our bunch was guest posting on the Oil Drum a few weeks ago about climate change, biofuels and food subsidies in the Middle East. I would disagree with the general tone and orientation of his conclusions. Nevertheless the post is well researched and describes the current situation in a clear and lucid way: Bread and Oil.

April 2, 2008

South Yemen in Revolt

Michael.di said...

Is there any sort of government in Yemen? I thought that parts of that country were socialist until the 90s.

March 18, 2008 1:49 PM

The government of Yemen is reported to have ordered the army to move tanks into southern cities in order to stop what's starting increasingly looking as a major revolt in what used to be the former communist state.

April 1, 2008

SAN'A, Yemen (AP) — . . .

Over the past three days, security forces arrested at least 120 former army officers and lawmakers believed to be leading demonstrations in the south, said a Yemeni official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.

Tanks moved in after six demonstrators were "seriously injured" during early morning clashes with police, witnesses reported.

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Last week, 20,000 demonstrators gathered in the southern city of Dhalae, 135 miles south of the capital, San'a, to demand reforms and the reinstatement of southerners into the army.

On Sunday, rioters set fire to at least two police stations, burned military vehicles and tried to storm the state-owned bank in Dhalae, the Yemeni official said. He said at least nine demonstrators were injured.

On Tuesday morning, riot police fired in the air to disperse demonstrators and roads were sealed by tanks and barricades, turning southern cities into ghost towns, witnesses said. Protesters responded by blocking the highway to the port city of Aden, the witnesses said.

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Intifadah in Dhalae

April 10, 2008

On the loose

It was not Morocco but Egypt. And it happened sooner than expected. Anyway, this time it was Egypt's turn to be hit by an outbreak of bread riots. If you are interested, the Sandmonkey was blogging about it here, here and here. There is also a feeling that this time it's different. The genie may be finally out of the bottle.

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