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Source: Food Security Sector
7 December 2014

In August 2014, Gaza marked the end of the third Israeli assault since 2008. The assault, which began on 7 July 2014, left thousands of Palestinians dead and injured, and over 100,000 displaced and homeless. The local economy sustained a major blow during the 51 days of bombardment and ground operations. All this came against the backdrop of 66 years of displacement and dispossession, 47 years of military occupation, decades of movement restrictions, and a seven-year blockade, which has crippled the economy and shattered livelihoods.

The current crisis comes against a backdrop of heightened vulnerability and instability. Between the second quarter of 2013 and the same quarter of 2014 the unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip increased from 27.9 percent to an astounding 44.5 percent, mainly as a result of the destruction of the tunnels with Egypt and the following collapse of the construction sector of the economy. Though illegal and largely uncontrolled, the tunnel trade provided a lifeline for besieged Gaza as they were a primary supply for food and non-food items, including much needed construction materials. Additionally, former de facto government employees, including the security forces, have not been paid salaries regularly since August 2013 and no salaries at all since April 2014. Decades of border restrictions and repeated assaults have destroyed livelihood opportunities and left most families in Gaza highly vulnerable to further shocks. Even before the crisis began, 80 percent of people in Gaza depend on social assistance, while social transfers (both cash and in-kind) have become an important source of income for the majority of households, accounting for approximately 16 percent of total household consumption overall and 31 percent among the poorest households prior to the assault. Some 72 percent of people were either food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity, even when taking into account UN food distributions to almost 1.1 million people.

This rapid qualitative Emergency Food Security Assessment (EFSA) —carried out by the Al-Sahel Company for Institutional Development and Communications (Al-Sahel) on behalf of the Food Security Cluster- aimed to guide possible adjustments of food security, agriculture and livelihood interventions in the Gaza Strip in the next 2-6 months, and, as far as possible in the next 6-12 months. Its specific objectives were: (i) to assess changes in Gaza households' food access and consumption patterns, cash sources to meet other priority basic needs and coping mechanisms used to respond to the specific effects of the war; (ii) to evaluate Gaza households' resilience capacity; (iii) to evaluate wholesale and retail markets current functionality and early recovery capacity for supplying food to consumers; and (iv) To determine the profile of population groups requiring food, agriculture and other livelihood support assistance (including the current caseload of humanitarian agencies as well as additional groups if appropriate), and the type of assistance required for each of these groups.

The assessment was conducted by a team of six researchers of the Al-Sahel Company between 15 September and 2 October 2014 and thus reflects the situation about one month into the ceasefire. Key informant and household interviews (semi-structured), direct observations, market/shop visits and meetings with various charitable organizations and industry associations were the main sources of information for the assessment. Secondary data was also used to inform the assessment and guiding the design of the assessment tools

The key findings of the EFSA indicate that:

1. While some shortages were witnessed during the assault, food availability has returned to pre-assault levels due mainly to the higher level of imports of food from Israel and the West Bank by both the private sector and the UN , and, by end of September, partial resumption of local production of staple vegetable, meat and eggs. Similar supplies of rice, pulses, canned vegetables, pickles, sauces, tea, coffee, fruit juices as before the war can be found in retail shops throughout Gaza Strip, at comparable pre-war prices. Locally produced and imported (from Israel and the West Bank) dairy products are also available in the market, but mainly in large supermarkets and the network of retail shops participating in WFP's voucher programme where availability of these products is required by WFP. These shops are generally well resourced, and have one or two electric generators.

It must be noted, however, that these prices had substantially increased in recent years due to international food price rises, high dependence on imports for food supplies and internal transportation costs, and additional costs linked to the restrictions at crossing points with Israel. Prices of food continue to be unaffordable for many households, including for items whose prices have become lower than pre-war as a result of low demand, such as chicken. This is evidenced by lower demand, which has been reported systematically by all traders interviewed, who also reported maintaining as little as 50 percent of their pre-war stock levels of the foods they stock.

Prior to the assault, and despite the blockade, Gaza enjoyed a near total self-sufficiency in vegetable production. The damages and losses sustained by the agricultural sector, particularly the plant production sub-sector, have been directly reflected in shortages of fresh produce in the Gaza Strip, where the sector has been unable to meet local demand for staple fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, and eggplants for the first time in more than 20 years. The imports of fresh produce, and the ability of farmers in less-affected areas to salvage some of their crops and to resume cultivation and production of short production-cycle crops such as cucumbers, have been majors factor behind the availability of fresh produce in Gaza's markets. However, the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables (particularly tomato) in Gaza markets were noted to be higher than their usual seasonal averages due to the high prices of imports and lower than usual local production. The supply of locally produced fruits and vegetables will likely decrease next season's harvest, however, due to a combination of factors, including: later than usual cultivation of vegetable crops (thus lower productivity), smaller area cultivated, loss of productive land and assets, loss of sources of irrigation, and lack of financial capacity/cash to cover irrigation costs. While future shortages may be compensated by imports from Israel and the West Bank (if authorised), the prices will likely be high thus making economic access to fruits and vegetables more difficult for poor households.

With all 60 bakeries in the Gaza Strip functioning, albeit at lower capacity than pre-war levels, the EFSA found bread readily available in local Gaza markets.

2. Economic access to food has been affected for those households whose homes and productive assets have been destroyed, and/or jobs lost as a result of the war. This includes, inter alia, households whose lands have been completely ravaged and/or lost farm assets, households of agricultural labourers who have been laid off, labourers and employees of private sector establishments destroyed during the war, households of fishermen whose boats or the boats on which they used to work were destroyed or seriously damaged. Households hosting and/or financially supporting displaced households face similar food access difficulties, but are generally less affected. For households who have not sustained such losses, economic access has not worsened significantly (at least not to an extent that could be objectively confirmed by the assessment team), but it must be noted that for many of these households —especially those with low income and a large number of dependents- economic access was already severely constrained prior to the war. Shelter and other forms of humanitarian assistance provided by UN organizations, international aid agencies, Islamic charitable organizations, and popular in-kind donations have been instrumental in ensuring that access to food remains attainable for the overwhelming majority of people in Gaza, and particularly for those affected by the war.

More specifically, the following findings should be highlighted:

Food assistance provided to IDPs in shelters, particularly when combined with other sources and forms of food assistance IDPs receive, both ensures access of displaced households to adequate food diversity, and, for some, exceeds the minimum caloric needs of these households. This is particularly true for: (i) small households who have multiple sources of food assistance; (ii) households whose members are not all present in the schools but receive full rations; and (iii) households whose members have registered and receive regular food rations in more than one school.

Access to food is generally not problematic IDPs who are staying with host families, though foods consumed by this category of IDPs was found to be quite monotonous and lacking variety. IDPs with host families who lost their source of income as a result of the war and who have not received their salaries for several months seemed to be particularly affected by the lack of food diversity. Displaced households with host families and host families interviewed indicated that food is accessible to them from a variety of sources, including: food assistance (from UNRWA for registered refugee households and households registered in schools, WFP/MoSA for non-refugee households, and charitable organizations for both refugee and non-refugee households), food obtained on credit from shop-keepers, and ad-hoc support from relatives, neighbours and friends. Generally, these sources of food are sufficient to meet the dietary requirements of these households, and food is not mentioned as the main priority by households.

Both physical and economic access to food for farmers whose sources of irrigation, lands and/or productive assets have been destroyed or severely damaged during the war have significantly worsened. Among these, farmers whose homes were also destroyed can be considered worst off These farmers were found to be generally well-targeted by UNRWA's and WFP's emergency food assistance programmes, and are now heavily reliant on this assistance for food. The majority of them have received some sort of cash assistance from sources cited earlier in the report. Discussions with these farmers and members of their household strongly suggest that they not only do not have sufficient cash or savings to reinvest in building up their livelihood assets, but also have outstanding debts to pay. Without a steady source of income and higher expenditure needs, these farmers will need to be provided with different forms of livelihood assistance for the foreseen future to be able reclaim their livelihoods. The need of this group for food assistance could not be properly assessed by the EFSA, though food assistance would certainly have a positive income-transfer effects on them, thereby capacitating them to recover their livelihoods more quickly.

Farmers' whose agricultural assets had only been partially destroyed and whose sources of irrigation have not been greatly affected have resumed farming activities, albeit at a significantly lower scale than pre-war. Most interviewed farmers in this category reported tapping their social capital for loans to resume their farming activities, including credit from input suppliers. These farmers are currently facing greater economic access difficulties than before the war due to a combination of factors, including loss of harvest, death of animals, higher input costs, higher costs of irrigation due to increased reliance on diesel generators for irrigation, and diversion of income (including, where applicable, non-agricultural income) to land and agricultural assets rehabilitation. This notwithstanding, these farmers do not seem to be facing serious food access problems, and this is mainly because the current levels of assistance they receive covers their consumption needs.

Economic access to food has worsened from pre-war to an estimated 1,200-1,500 fisherfolk households who have lost some or all of their fishing assets and/or fishing jobs. Sources of food for these fishermen are humanitarian assistance and debts authorised by shop-keepers. Generally, these food sources are sufficient to meet the dietary requirements of these households, and food is not mentioned as the main priority by them. However, fishermen households can steadfast their current conditions only if the assistance provided to them is maintained, and if additional support is provided to those who have lost their productive assets.

Interviewed workers in services, industrial and agriculture sectors dismissed after the war seemed to have lower access to food than pre-war, though most seem to be already benefitting from food and cash-transfer assistance programmes, including WFP's food voucher programme. Food assistance received by the households of dismissed private sector workers as well as debts authorised by shop-keepers were found to comprise 40% and 50% of food sources for these households, respectively. Food and cash assistance were thus identified to be priority by these households. Households of dismissed workers who have lost their home and are currently in UNRWA's school shelters, however, identified shelter and cash for rent as their top priority, but also acknowledged their need for continuation of food assistance.

While access to food has been affected for a very large swathe of Gaza's population as the preceding paragraphs show, it has been largely unaffected for households whose livelihoods were not directly affected or whose homes have sustained minor damages. Economic access to food of households interviewed in this category seems to have improved after the war (at least temporarily) as most of them have received emergency food assistance, including from UNRWA, WFP and solidarity campaigns, for which they had been previously ineligible. At the time of the assessment, many of these households reporting having stocks of the assistance they received that could last them for at least a week. This group includes households of PA employees, employees of local NGOs, private sector employees who were lucky to return to their jobs after the war, and farmers' whose lands and assets have been either unaffected or sustained minor damages.

3. Food utilization and nutritional status are likely to deteriorate if urgent repairs of the water systems and of damaged housing units are not undertaken. Access to water for drinking and hygiene purposes was already problematic before the war but has been completely disrupted for households whose housing units were damaged. The amount of water available has also further decreased for both host and hosted families. Poor hygiene especially of young children. Overcrowding in UNRWA school shelters and for families hosting relatives whose house was damaged, destroyed or is felt too dangerously located near the Israeli border, also increases risks of spread of infectious diseases. Most households, even those displaced, have access to cooking fuel, including through their host families and through the use of firewood. Fuel is readily available, but prices are beyond the reach of most households. Cooking gas remains scarce as it was pre-war, however, and most families rely on old-style kerosene heat ranges and firewood for cooking. This is forcing many households, especially those that do not have open areas in which to use firewood, to reduce their reliance on cooked foods and increasing their consumption of ready-to-eat dry foods.

4. Despite articulating a great sense of resilience, steadfastness and ability to use various strategies to cope with their plight, the additional shock of the war has negatively affected households coping capacity and this requires rapid economic and material responses so that difficult arbitrages are not made on the allocation on resources to food versus non-food requirements. While pre-war coping mechanisms have been re-activated extremely quickly, the additional shock created by the war will put an additional demand on households' resources. Should households who have suffered direct house and livelihood damages not benefit from rapid economic and material support to recover their housing and productive capacity, they are likely to review their resource allocation priorities with potential negative effects on the amount and quality of their diet. Arbitrage on resources may also affect negatively children's attendance to school (savings made on transportation, uniforms and other materials) and use of health services (further discouraged by the destruction of facilities and shortages of drugs and personnel). It is also clear that food access remains highly unsatisfactory for households who have not been directly war-affected. Most continue to depend on external food and cash or temporary job assistance to meet at least part of their needs, and their diet remains extremely monotonous.

Based on the above preliminary results, the following recommendations are made:

1. Continue providing assistance to the pre-war destitute at the same pre-war levels.

2. Continue extending assistance to the households who have suffered direct housing, productive assets and/or job losses due to the war. These households require additional support over and above any pre-war assistance they were receiving. The assistance for these directly war-affected households should gradually move from the current in-kind food distribution modalities to various forms of cash transfer modalities, including food vouchers, to cover the entirety of their food needs as well as include an extra economic support to enable them to:
a. access an alternative housing (pay the rent) or repair their own house;
b. compensate for the direct loss of income from their own production or job, until their access is restored;
c. rebuild a minimum of domestic and productive assets; and,
d. enable economic access to school and health (for non-refugees who do not benefit from UNRWA free services).

While the full dependence of this particular group of war-affected households on external assistance, solidarity and traders' loans and additional expenditures due to the war justifies the proposed increased assistance, it is not recommended to provide a 2100 kcal ration covering all the dietary requirements, as households will either continue to sell or barter part of it in order to diversify their diet or meet other needs. Rather, a partial food ration, at the level already planned under the WFP's Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) that had been formulated for the the West Bank and Gaza before the war, could be provided simultaneously with a food voucher that permits households to access additional commodities from retailers. Food voucher- or cash-for-work interventions for some households with working capacity could be an option to complement a free food ration, particularly geared towards repairs of housing and restoration of land for example. Access to raw materials and equipment is indispensable, but may be an issue if the restrictions of entry by the Israeli authorities are not lifted.

3. Suspend the blanket emergency food distribution and food vouchers that has been taking place since August 2014. These distributions were appropriate during the war and the few days thereafter when life was disrupted and the population's access to food was uncertain. Given the availability of food in the local market and what has been presented above regarding access to food, the continuation of blanket food distribution through general distribution and food vouchers is no longer justifiable.

4. Complement food assistance with cash grants, temporary job employment and/or in-kind assistance for repairs and rebuilding of assets, as well as land rehabilitation. Humanitarian organizations are strongly encouraged to design interventions to restore damaged agricultural assets, including but not limited to greenhouses, irrigation wells, pumps and networks, poultry farms and other animal farms, fences, olive and citrus groves, and fishing boats. In doing so measures should be taken to establish interim social assistance programmes to support farming households until they restore their full productive capacity. For this to happen, the following medium-term recommendations for the Food Security Sector member organisations, assuming that conditions for recovery are met:

a. work together to complement food assistance being provided by UNRW, WFP and MoSA with cash grants, temporary job employment and/or in-kind assistance for repairs and rebuilding of assets, as well land rehabilitation. To the extent possible, and to maximize cost effectiveness of this assistance, the existing voucher system should be used to channel assistance to farmers.

b. Collaboratively design interventions to restore damaged agricultural assets, including but not limited to greenhouses, irrigation wells, pumps and networks, poultry farms and other animal farms, fences, olive and citrus groves, and fishing boats.

c. enhance social protection measures by supporting cash-for-work, food-for-work and from-poor-farmers-to-poor-people programs that will assist in agriculture recovery and provide much needed employment for the new war unemployed.

d. collaboratively and take measures to establish interim social assistance programmes to support farming households until they restore their full productive capacity.

2. Specifically, the members of the Food Security Sector should collaborate to:

a. enhance the efficiency food assistance targeting, particularly for IDPs, through the establishment common databases on the recipients of food and non-food assistance. Such a system would not only improve targeting, but would also facilitate improved responsiveness and impact monitoring.

b. further develop the Food Security Monitoring and Early Warning System in the Gaza Strip, building on the tools and Vulnerability, Assessment and Mapping (VAM) capacities available at FAO/WFP in Jerusalem.

c. support to MoSA and implementing agencies to improve equitability and inclusive social protection:

The EFSA was not able to gather sufficient information from the beneficiaries to guide long-term recovery interventions beyond those identified in the preceding paragraphs. Not surprisingly, priorities expressed by households and Key Informants for the next 6-18 months focused on security and personal safety, and the re­opening of the crossing points, which require international advocacy and political solutions that go much beyond early recovery interventions. If the entry of raw materials and other equipment required to repair the damages of the war on houses, infrastructure and agriculture is not allowed, as is currently the case, humanitarian assistance at pre-war levels and at increased level for those who have suffered direct losses, must be anticipated for the long-term.

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