Broad Overview of 36th FAO Regional Conference for Near East and North Africa

Cairo – AbdulHakim Elwaer, FAO Assistant Director- General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa shares a broad overview of the results of the 36th session of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Regional Conference for the Near East (NERC36) which was held in Baghdad in February, focusing on the regional priorities and tangible steps to be taken in various fields.

  • Besides the ministerial declaration, what’s in your opinion, the most important achievement from NERC 36?

First and foremost, the very fact of having a regional conference in the region, after 12 years, is quite historic. Secondly, the level of engagement and ownership by member countries was impressive. Moreover, it was successfully organized as a hybrid Conference and we had a record number of Ministers (25) attending, of which 12 in presence. We followed a gradual process of having a regional stakeholders dialogue followed by a senior officials meeting and finally the ministerial segment. The process and interest by member countries gave us an outcome that is well deliberated, shared and owned widely.

The Regional Conference has given us specific mandates and guiding principles, not just a political or vague language. Member countries have recognized the most important challenges for our region and agreed upon finding pathways and solutions through a Regional Agrifood Systems Transformative Agenda. The members endorsed our four regional priorities and asked us to deploy efforts through innovative approaches for helping them develop evidence-based decision support systems for transforming their agrifood systems.

  • Protracted crisis hitting many countries in your region are posing real challenges. What are your plans to meet the growing needs to address these challenges?

It is an unfortunate reality in our region. The protracted crisis, whether political or natural, have exacerbated the food insecurity and widened social and dietary gaps. Given the mandate and scope of FAO, we cannot play a direct role in these crises but we are certainly playing our role through disaster risk reduction related work, and by working towards creating resilience in the affected areas and countries. We work on mitigation and adaptation of climate change related disasters is also relevant in this regard.

I believe that hunger is not result of crisis, but a prevailing hunger may lead to many crises. Therefore, our work through four betters would contribute towards minimizing the hunger-led crises. Due to climate change and political externalities, we are particularly mindful of our role in the NENA region and we would enhance our efforts in this regard.

  • Water is one of the most conflictual topics in the region? How is FAO contributing to solving, confronting or mitigating the effects of water scarcity in the region?

Although the causes of water scarcity are straight forward and can be summed by natural aridity and increasing demand driven by rapid population growth and changing lifestyles, all of which are exasperated by climate change, the implications of water scarcity on socioeconomic and environmental development is very complex. The complexity arises from the fact that the impacts of water scarcity are crosscutting into many sectors and as such affect rural livelihoods, economic growth, gender equality, consumption and production, natural resources sustainability, among others. A cross cutting problem needs integrated solutions that bring all stakeholders, not only from within the water sector, but from all relevant sectors and that is why we indicate that water related solution usually lie outside the water sector.

At FAO, we realized the need for collaboration between governments, development partners and other stakeholders in order to make the progress that we aim for. In this regards, the Regional initiative on Water Scarcity was developed on the basis of a collaborative strategy and launched in 2013, together with the 17 partner organizations signing a pledge that demonstrates their “strong interest and willingness to work together, drawing on our collective knowledge and resources, in an effective, action-oriented and result-based Regional Partnership to support the implementation of relevant collaborative strategies,… and assisting the Countries of the Region to cope with water scarcity, manage sustainably their land and water resources and meet their sustainable development goals”.

We believe that countries are on the driver seat. In addition, all development partners, civil society organizations, academia, and international donor community and others need to be included in the discussions to identify appropriate solutions that may be different for different countries depending on the socioeconomic, environmental and political setting.

So far, many countries have taken up the challenge to face water scarcity through adoption of institutional reforms, leading to enhanced capacity for strategic planning of water resources through effective tools like water accounting and valuing water through enhanced water productivity within sustainability limits of water resources. Coordination between water and agriculture is a reality with, at the regional level for example, the two council of ministers for water and agriculture are jointly meeting to discuss crosscutting issues between the two sectors aiming for “more crop per drop”. The guidelines for water allocation for agriculture has just been endorsed by the joint ministerial council and this will certainly have a visible positive impact once adopted by the countries. Technology is an important accelerator towards sustainable water management. The use of remote sensing tools for real-time data acquisition is and will optimize water allocation to the various sectors and even for the different crops and help monitor and enforce rules and regulations, especially on groundwater exploitation. Non-conventional water can relief some of the pressure on freshwater resources and demonstrate the validity of the circular economy approach.

To conclude, we need to realize the pivotal role of water for agricultural production and food security and with irrational water management, food security becomes at risk. Given the interlinkages of water and food with other development issues, we can conclude that integrated and sustainable management of water resources is needed if food security and the whole of the sustainable development agenda is to be achieved.

  • What are your plans to increase NENA countries engagement in the Hand-in-Hand initiative, which is implemented now in Sudan, Syria and Libya?

Our members are quite impressed by the HiH initiative and some of them would certainly like to benefit from it. I feel that we need to work with them to enhance the awareness and potential use of this platform for collaboration. I will be working, through respective FAORs and my team, to enhance outreach with members to expand the coverage of initiatives under the HiH platform.

My simple message to them is that let us help you in digitizing more of your villages. Most of the countries are interested and willing but sometimes they do not find a clear pathway in terms of enabling action and resources. We can help them in it and we will do, to bring more and more countries into digital villages initiative coverage.

  • NERC 36 endorsed the creation of the Regional Food Security and Nutrition Observatory which will be hosted at the FAO RNE. What are the benefits expected from this observatory and what is needed to guarantee its success?

At present, there are various tools and datasets available with the FAO and other agriculture-related institutions, however, there is a lack of relevant analytics and tailor-made decision-support systems for the NENA region. In order to fill the knowledge, data and analytical gap in the areas of food security and nutrition, this Observatory would serve the following:

  • Support policymaking and implementation, through data and analytics, on food security and nutrition. It would serve as “adaptive management tool” for member countries.
  • Fill the gaps in data analysis for evidence-based and well-informed policies for food security and nutrition.
  • Support member countries in tracking and assessing the performances of the food supply chains, including through international trade, food affordability (price and income), food utilization (food consumption, food safety, nutrition profile of food intakes) and production forecasting due to various factors including climate change impacts.
  • Generate advance warnings and identify areas of concerns such as the food stocks, production and consumption patterns, tracking and tackling food loss and waste.

The Observatory would build upon existing platforms and data tools by FAO and other development partners. The idea is to tailor existing knowledge and data sources of the FAO, build relevant analytics for the countries and help them get detailed and in-depth analysis that meet their specific requirements.

  • Financing mitigation and adaptation projects to meet the climate challenges ahead is a concern for some countries. How can FAO support countries across the region to attract climate finance and implement climate-resilient innovation across agrifood systems?

There is still plenty of room for the region to access international public sources of finance, as finance flows to agriculture, forestry, and other land uses, as well as to water and sanitation, have lagged behind other sectors like transport and energy. FAO has worked with country partners over the last few years to grow the regional portfolio of agriculture and water projects. Recently, we had two projects approved (totaling USD $35 million). One of these is in Sudan, building the potential for gum Arabic for adaptation and mitigation, and the other in Jordan which focuses on improving water use efficiency in agricultural production. Through the GEF, we are supporting projects to ensure better environments and livelihoods in Mauritania, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, and Lebanon, with others in the pipeline.

FAO stands ready to support countries in enhancing capacities to leverage such funds and accessing these opportunities. On the other hand, countries can play their part by exploring regional collaborative opportunities for finance, as well as taking opportunities such as the GCF readiness programme to build the enabling environment for implementing the bigger projects. We should also not forget that to make a difference on climate action in the long haul, good national planning and budgeting for climate change interventions is necessary. We should also tap the potential for innovative financing mechanisms in partnership with the private sector.

  • As Egypt will be hosting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP 27), what’s FAO’s role in highlighting regional priorities?

COP27 in Egypt is a tremendous opportunity to amplify not only the urgent problems that are putting the region’s agrifood systems at risk, but also the solutions that make them more climate-resilient. Current issues like water scarcity, land and soil degradation, and extreme events like drought, flood and hurricanes, are projected to worsen under projected climate change. FAO is already working on greening our agriculture and food systems, and this means making our production more climate-smart and energy-efficient and reducing food loss and waste. Our efforts ultimately target the pressing needs of smallholder farmers, to protect their livelihoods, implement innovative technologies, and adapt to changing conditions for production and marketing of agricultural products. Together, we need to use the opportunity of COP27 to build momentum for action on climate across societies. We should refocus our efforts to implement water-energy-food nexus solutions to reduce agriculture’s climate footprint while redoubling our efforts to build resilience across agrifood systems.

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