DAMASCUS // Drought-ravaged areas of Syria continue to face "catastrophe" with tens of thousands of malnourished people excluded from international relief efforts, according to the head of the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) in Damascus.
Muhannad Hadi, who is leading the WFP's emergency response plan in Syria, said 110,000 severely impoverished people would not receive aid, despite UN officers identifying them as needing help. Describing conditions in drought-hit eastern regions as "a nightmare", Mr Hadi said the WFP was unable fulfil its responsibilities to desperately poor communities because of a funding shortfall. The UN agency has received less than half of the US$22 million (Dh81m) required to support 300,000 vulnerable people this year and, as a result, has carried out drastic cutbacks in its aid programme. Global economic difficulties and lingering political tensions between Syria and the United States, have both been suggested as reasons for donors' unwillingness to give the additional $12.2m.
"It's a horrible decision to make, choosing who gets aid and who doesn't, you feel you are playing with people's lives," Mr Hadi said in an interview. "The 110,000 [excluded] are poor and need our help, they're just a little less impoverished than the 190,000 we are giving food to. "But we are talking about malnourished children, the elderly, it's an extremely difficult situation and no one is stepping in to fill the gap.
"Looking at it as a professional, I'd call it an emergency. Looking at it as a human being, I'd say it's desperately sad. Speaking as a father myself, it's heartbreaking, I've seen the kids out there." The WFP began distributing emergency food packages earlier this month in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hasaka, three vast semi-arid provinces in eastern Syria that were once the nation's breadbasket. The aid scheme, the second of its kind here since last year, was originally scheduled to run until August but UN officials now say the need is such that it could be extended until October, if money can be found.
Estimates vary but as many as a million people may have fled the land in Syria's so-called Jazeera region as a result of three consecutive years of crippling drought. Some 160 villages have been abandoned entirely, researchers say, their residents moving to already over-populated urban centres in search of work. Squalid camps of rural migrants have sprung up on the outskirts of Damascus and other cities.
The UN reports that 40,000 families have left the once-lush farming areas, a number likely to amount to more than 300,000 individuals In addition to handing out packages of basic supplies such as oil, rice, flour and salt, the WFP has provided thousands of pregnant and nursing women with nutritional supplements, in order to prevent growth abnormalities in their children. During fact-finding missions to the affected region, Mr Hadi said his staff had found children as young as one and two years old surviving on nothing but bread and tea. "That was a catastrophe, a nightmare," he said.
"Try to imagine, these children are not going to get the basic nutrition they need to develop properly: If you don't address this, you're going to have a generation that grows up malnourished, that doesn't develop as it should". He said food aid packages given to families had literally been "saving their lives". The funding shortfall comes at a critical time for the region, UN officials said, with crops failing again this year and wheat harvests affected by disease. That means large areas, already devastated by drought, have been dealt another blow.
Syrian government figures suggest wheat production in 2010 will be cut by half from its 2007 level, forcing the country - once self-sufficient in wheat - to again rely on expensive imports it can ill afford to pay for. "Those people need both immediate assistance and durable assistance to help them stand again on their own feet," Mr Hadi said of the eastern farming communities. "Three droughts in a row is like bashing someone over the head with a big stick, not once but three times. You have no chance to recover and people just did not recover."
A recent 2 million (Dh9m) donation from the European Union had come as a crucial lifeline for the aid effort, Mr Hadi said, propped up by a large shipment of dates from Saudi Arabia. "We are grateful to all the donors of course, but we were hoping to get more, we are still hoping to get more," Mr Hadi said. "From the Arab countries, from the regional powers, from the United States, Japan, China. We are hoping, we really need the funds."
If money is not raised soon, Mr Hadi said, the rural communities in eastern Syria would be faced with an even bigger problem next year. "We can deal with this problem now for $22m or, if we leave it for another 12 months it's going to get worse and will cost $44m ... the sooner you fix this, the cheaper it will be. Today it costs $22m, next year God knows what will happen." The Syrian government, weighed down by heavy budget deficits and with dwindling oil revenues, has taken steps to ease the burden on farmers, including providing cut-price seeds, rescheduling loan repayments and drawing up new irrigation blueprints. One large-scale irrigation scheme is being supported by Kuwait.
Earlier this month Abdullah al Dardari, Syria's deputy prime minister for economic affairs, announced plans to increase investment in the Jazeera areas and to build a dam, in an effort to provide long-term solutions to poverty and an over-reliance on apparently unsustainable agriculture. Critics of the government, including leading Syrian academics, accuse it doing too little, too late to head off the farming crisis.