Leading UK think tank Chatham House has painted a picture of how world trade is exposed to a network of ‘chokepoints’ dotted across the globe that are in many cases highly vulnerable to a series of threats.
‘Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade’, a Chatham House Report authored by Rob Bailey and Laura Wellesley, issued a call for global cooperation to prepare for food crises and wrote in detail about areas of potential risk.
The report warned that with the rise in political conflicts, terrorist activities and the global warming-induced need for additional food supplies, and chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, countries should be seriously thinking of how to secure their food supplies and alleviate their vulnerability to these insecure trade routes.
Wellesley gave an example of the Strait of Hormuz that Iran has threatened to close. This strategic bottleneck has long been an area of concern for oil exporters, who are constantly vigilant to this threat. Food importers should be equally concerned as many countries that depend on Hormuz for oil exports also rely on this Strait for their food supply.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post highlighted the significance of this issue: nearly one billion people worldwide depend on international trade to meet their food needs, which has created 14 chokepoints and were any of these to close, millions could starve.
The Chatham House report puts into context the far-reaching consequences of any major disturbances at these chokepoints, “A serious interruption at one or more of the chokepoints could conceivably lead to supply shortfalls and price spikes, with systemic consequences that could reach beyond food markets.”
The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states located in the Middle East are among the most exposed to potential food security risks caused by maritime chokepoints, said the United Arab Emirates (UAE) based The National. 95 percent of Kuwait’s maize, wheat and soya bean imports pass through one chokepoint, as do 94% of the UAE’s cereal imports. All grain imports by Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE go through the Strait of Hormuz. Their risk exposure is high as there is simply no alternative route.
Saudi Arabia is also highly dependent on the Strait of Hormuz, but its risk is modified as it can use Red Sea ports in the event of a disruption, said The National.
Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to close its border with Qatar is a good example of a threat to food security, the newspaper noted. As an estimated 40 percent of Qatar’s food imports come overland from Saudi Arabia, the border closure renders Qatar entirely dependent on food imports by air and sea. Since all sea imports need to use the Strait of Hormuz, Qatar is vulnerable to a food crisis.
Besides the Strait of Hormuz, The National outlined other sea-channel chokepoints that threaten the Middle East’s food security and international trade in general: Egypt’s Suez Canal faces risks from terrorism amid the rise of extremist elements in the Sinai Peninsula, while the Bab Al Mandab Strait, which runs between Yemen and Djibouti, is threatened by the civil war in Yemen. Instability in Turkey poses a threat to the Turkish Straits through which most of the grain is imported into the Middle East.
It is instructive to note that only one chokepoint, the Strait of Gibraltar, has not seen any major disruption in the past 15 years, according to the Chatham report.
More than half of the world’s exports of crops such as wheat, maize, rice and soya bean use inland routes to key ports in the US, Brazil and the Black Sea. More than half of these crops use at least one maritime chokepoint.
“We are talking about a huge share of global supply that could be delayed or stopped for a significant period of time,” said Wellesley.
“What is of concern also is that, with climate change, we are very likely to see one or more of these chokepoint disruptions coincide with a harvest failure, and that’s when things start to get serious.”
To help mitigate the risks caused by chokepoints, the report suggests that countries particularly vulnerable build up stockpiles, improve infrastructure and find an alternative route where possible.