ROME, 12th May, 2016 (WAM) — Conflicts are impeding the fight against hunger in the Near East region where growing food insecurity is also compounded by rising water scarcity and a challenging natural resource situation that is exacerbated by climate change, FAO Director-General Graziano da Silva said today.

He stressed how recent significant progress in curbing hunger – 15 out of 19 countries in the region achieved the MDG hunger goal — is being eroded by the impact of strife in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“For the region as a whole there has been a 30 percent increase in the prevalence of undernourishment,” the FAO Director-General said noting how the total number of hungry people in the Near East and North Africa “has doubled, and now stands at nearly 33 million”.

The situation was particular serious in Syria where 6.5 million people have been internally displaced while more than 4.8 million have fled to neighboring countries and elsewhere. Half of the Syrian population that remains in the country is in need of food assistance. Graziano da Silva made the remarks during a meeting of agriculture ministers attending FAO’s Regional Conference for the Near East taking place at the Organization’s Rome headquarters this week.

“The Conference offers a great opportunity to reflect on how to move forward to overcome the many challenges ahead,” he said, noting how FAO has been working with its partners to strengthen the food security and resilience of the most affected populations, “not only to mitigate impacts but to set the foundations for post-crisis recovery”.

Among the most serious challenges facing the Near East region is “an unprecedented escalation in water scarcity” with the average availability of fresh water per capita standing at just 10 percent of the world average.

Factors contributing to this include growth of urban populations, which diverts water away from agriculture with negative consequences for food security and the rural economy.

In addition, climate change “exacerbates existing vulnerabilities to natural hazards such as drought,” the FAO Director-General said.

In this context, Graziano da Silva noted however, that three regional initiatives targeting “Building Resilience for Food Security and Nutrition,” “Small-Scale Agriculture for Inclusive Development”, and “Water Scarcity” have started to show positive results. Introduced in 2014 these initiatives respond to priorities for the Near East and North Africa identified by FAO Members in the region.

The FAO Director-General concluded his address at today’s high-level session by calling for bigger efforts in resource mobilization in the region to overcome the challenges posed by political instability and insecurity.

“We need more support from the rich countries in the region to better assist themselves and their neighbours,” he said.

This week’s FAO Regional Conference for the Near East, which began on Monday and ends on Friday is being attended by agriculture ministers and senior officials from 25 countries as well as representatives from civil society organizations and the private sector.

It is The regional conference, currently chaired by the Government of Lebanon, convenes every two years to ensure the effectiveness of FAO’s work in member states. It is the highest FAO governing body at the regional level and sets the agency’s work agenda and budget priorities for the next biennium.