x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Drought aid plan in Syria is extended

Red Cross/Red Crescent expands emergency response plan for population in eastern regions.

A shepherd in Hasika last November. Four years of drought and recent crop disease have devastated the province, aid agencies say. Phil Sands / The National
A shepherd in Hasika last November. Four years of drought and recent crop disease have devastated the province, aid agencies say. Phil Sands / The National

DAMASCUS // The Red Cross/Red Crescent has extended an emergency aid appeal for drought-stricken regions of eastern Syria, citing "urgent" health concerns and insufficient food and clean water supplies. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said its work in drought-hit provinces had been extended in duration and expanded in scope because of "immense needs". Its emergency response plan will run until at least the end of the year, four months longer than expected.

Current projects include distribution of food packages and drinking water to the population in rural areas. Sanitation programmes, designed to halt the spread of diseases related to water scarcity, are also being implemented in 45 schools, covering 15,000 children. "The population has not recovered from the effects of the years of drought and they are still asking for food," the IFRC said in a report issued last month to coincide with the launch of the extended appeal.

It comes as the UN World Food Programme continues to distribute emergency supplies to 190,000 severely impoverished people in Hasika, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, the provinces that make up the Jazeera region. The UN has identified 300,000 people as in priority need of food aid to prevent malnutrition, but has been unable to raise sufficient funds, leaving 110,00 without assistance. Less than half of a US$22 million (Dh81m) UN-backed drought-response plan for Syria received funding from the international community.

Similarly, the IFRC and its local partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have struggled to finance their work this year, with only half of the $3.3m relief programme budget being met. Most of that has come as donations from the IFRC's local organisations in other countries, including Sweden, Japan, the United States and the UAE. The IFRC is requesting more donors come forward. "The additional funding required by aid organisations is relatively small; it's less than the price paid for football players these days, but it would make a huge difference to the lives of thousands of people," said Abdul Rahman Attar, president of SARC and a member of IFRC's governing board. "I am still hopeful that the international community or Arab states will help with the extra money. It is very much needed."

The Jazeera region, Syria's agricultural breadbasket, has been hit by four years of drought and this year's wheat crop was ravaged by disease. UN officials have described the situation as "a nightmare" and the IFRC report said almost the entire population of the region was suffering. Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, went to Jazeera last month, the first inspection in Syria by an official from the UN Human Rights Council.

In his preliminary assessment, Mr De Schutter said 1.3 million people had felt the effects of the "devastating" drought, with 800,000 severely affected. About 60,000 families have fled the countryside for urban centres, leaving 160 villages abandoned. The Syrian government has established a national drought fund and financial help for farmers. Even with support from aid agencies the government has been overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis.

Mr De Schutter said the international response to the drought emergency had been "unacceptably low". He blamed the politicisation of aid, criticising donors for refusing to fund vital projects in Syria because of ideological concerns. Damascus remains at odds with the US and other western countries over its conflict with Israel. Washington has imposed economic sanctions on Syria over its support for militant groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas.

The IFRC said the drought had led to increased reliance on unclean water for drinking, adding to the problems of a population that has largely been surviving on bread, tea and sugar. A "serious shortage of clean water supplies last summer resulted in an increase in the number of diarrhoeal diseases", the report said. In partnership with SARC, the IRFC has provided food aid to more than 70,000 people since August 2009. The packages, which include rice, vegetable oil and tomato paste, have been given to families that missed the UN's emergency food distribution.

Food has also been distributed by the Syrian authorities, one of "several important" government initiatives, including modern irrigation programmes and a proposed drought early warning system, that the IRFC has praised. But the aid organisation said problems remained. "The population is still suffering from the consequences of the drought and in all villages visited by Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the International Federation, people ask for continued support," the report said.

A variety of factors have led to harsh drought conditions in eastern Syria, something environmentalists attribute to climate change. The problems have been exacerbated because groundwater supplies have been depleted through years of over exploitation, as farmers sought to take advantage of government subsidies.