BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 1 (UPI) -- Lebanon's deteriorating economy, an expected reduction of subsidies and political inertia have left the population at risk of acute hunger within months, experts told UPI, warning of a potential humanitarian crisis requiring immediate international intervention.
Food insecurity has become a major source of concern in Lebanon, which has been added to a list of the world's 20 worst hunger hot spots in need of urgent assistance.
Last week, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program warned that acute hunger is due to rise steeply in most world regions, including the Middle Eastern countries of Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, which are seriously affected by a rapid currency depreciation and skyrocketing inflation.
"Lebanon is not as bad as Syria, Yemen or Sudan, but the main reason that Lebanon has been included was because of the rapid deterioration of its food security situation, rapid increase in poverty and unemployment, in addition to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound," Maurice Saade, FAO's representative in Lebanon, told UPI.
With Lebanon importing 80 percent of its food and the devaluation of the national currency, food prices have increased accordingly, Saade said. "So we have rapid decline in purchase power and rapid increase in inflation."
But the most alarming factor is Lebanon's inability to maintain food subsidies for much longer due to the dwindling foreign currency reserves at the Central Bank, which dropped from $30 billion a year ago to $16 billion.
Caretaker Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni told Bloomberg earlier this month that only $1 billion to $1.5 billion can be still used to fund subsidies, enough for two to three months.
Saade warned that if food subsidies are removed, "that will cause deterioration in food security in the country."
Price of bread
The subsidized food basket that included 300 items -- meat, poultry, oil products, milk and vegetables, but also branded coffees, cashew, coffee creamer, frozen strawberries and saffron -- has been reduced to about 42 items. Many of the subsidized foods, medicines and fuel were smuggled abroad, ending up in Syria, Turkey, Kuwait, Egypt, Sweden, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
Even with subsidies on wheat, medicine and fuel for electricity generation remaining for now, the price of a bundle of bread has increased three times in recent few months, reaching 3,000 LL last week.
"Bread is the food of the poor...If the government decides to remove completely the subsidy on bread, it could go up to 10,000 LL and very few poor people can afford that," Saade said.
Manar, a 36-year-old divorcee with three children ages 5 years to 17 months, has been living on donations since her ex-husband lost his job as a salesman at a clothing store.
Every month, she receives a food box from Nusaned, a non-governmental group. Her family and neighbors also help her buy some fruits and vegetables while the pharmacist in the Beirut neighborhood of Burj Abi Haidar where she lives helps secure her medications and treat her children when sick.
"I am able to feed my children, but they haven't drunk milk for five months," Manar, who asked not to disclose her family name, told UPI. "Meat and chicken have become luxuries...only the politicians can afford them."
Sabah Hazzouri is luckier. She and her five-member family occasionally eat meat, chicken or fish shared by a neighbor. With two of her sons jobless, the family cannot survive on the monthly salary of her third son, a police officer with a wife and 2-year-old son.
"He earns 800,000 Lebanese pounds [$62 at the black market rate of 13,000 LL for 1 U.S. dollar], but he has to pay half of it every month for his house loan," Hazzouri told UPI. "It is getting very hard every day."
Securing sustainable support for the growing number of poor has prompted a local NGO to be more creative. "Cedars for Care" established the Habbat El Barak (black cumin) chicken farm in eastern Lebanon to provide families in need with healthy food through sustainable produce.
"We are distributing for free around 350 boxes, each containing 30 eggs, to needy families per month," Iffat Idriss of Cedars for Care told UPI. "We have to be creative and think long term."
As the subsidy program that was put in place last year proved to benefiting the rich more than those in need, the World Bank stepped in with a $246 million loan to provide emergency cash assistance for one year and access to social services to 786,000 poor and vulnerable Lebanese. Ration cards are being considered to prevent corruption, manipulation and mishandling.
"That program would help a lot...But the problem is it excludes the Syrian and Palestinian refugees," Saade said.
'All ages suffering'
Like most of the Lebanese, the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 200,000 Palestinian refugees are getting poorer due to the country's worsening economy.
"Food needs are unfolding dramatically. People from all ages are suffering," said Bujar Hoxha, country director of CARE International in Lebanon, which supported 1 million people in the country last year.
With more than 60% of the Lebanese living below poverty line, the Lebanese pound losing 90% of its value and inflation soaring above 130 percent, "the state of Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon is even worse," Hoxha told UPI.
He warned that Lebanon is in "no-war situation" but is facing a humanitarian crisis that requires immediate attention.
The country could reach acute hunger within three months.
"It is weeks for certain families...a matter of weeks for some communities and months for other communities. But they are all moving toward acute food problems," Hoxha said.