x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

UN extends emergency aid to drought-hit Syria

UN's World Food Programme seeking additional $16.5m needed to feed 300,000 vulnerable people, including 47,000 children under five who are surviving on little more than bread and tea.

DAMASCUS // The United Nations has extended its emergency aid operations in Syria's drought-ravaged east, warning that food shortages and malnutrition there are spreading.

This latest extension - it is the second time the relief effort has been prolonged since its launch in 2009 - is to run until May. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) is now seeking an additional US$16.5 million (Dh60.6m), which it says is needed to feed 300,000 vulnerable people, including 47,000 children under the age of 5 who are surviving on little more than bread and tea.

The UN report outlining the extended appeal, recently published online, warns that the effects of severe drought in the Jazeera, which has already forced hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families to flee, are becoming more serious.

An assessment in October confirmed that there was "no improvement in the humanitarian situation compared with previous years," the report states. "On the contrary, food insecurity had spread to additional areas."

The term "food insecurity" refers to the inability of people to meet their most basic dietary requirements. The UN report says 25 per cent of the population in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Hasika, plus the districts of Hama and Idleb, are living on less than $1 a day, and eating mainly bread, sugar and tea.

Children have been heavily affected, the report states, with 48 per cent under the age of 2 suffering from stunted growth. In a part of Hasika province, the UN has been dealing with children younger than 5 suffering "severe, acute malnutrition".

Since 2006 there have been successive droughts in the Jazeera, traditionally Syria's breadbasket, wiping out harvests and destroying up to 80 per cent of livestock in the area. Although last year the rain finally came, it coincided with unusual temperature fluctuations that destroyed up to 40 per cent of planted crops.

There is little indication that this year will offer respite, after one of the driest winters in decades. The UN refers to the residents of the region as "chronically vulnerable and poor".

In an interview this month with The Wall Street Journal, Syria's president, Bashar Assad, said the drought had dramatically influenced the economy and affected as many as three million people, many of whom have left their land to look for work in the cities.

"We have five years of drought and this is the fifth year where we do not have enough water," he said. "So, we will have less wheat; we used to export wheat and cotton every year but this year we have problems.

"This year, three million Syrians out of 22 million Syrians will be affected by the drought. So, this is our priority now."

The Syrian government has taken steps to tackle the problems, setting up a national drought strategy and establishing a fund to help ease the effects of the drought. Farmers have also been given extended lines of credit and additional subsidies.

Longer-term solutions are also being devised, including more efficient, modern irrigation techniques to replace the wasteful methods used now.

But experts have said the sheer scale of the problem dwarfs the abilities of the Syrian authorities to cope. In fact, the UN's own efforts to raise funds have also fallen flat, with international donors reluctant to contribute.

Since starting in 2009, the WFP's emergency response plan in Syria has been only 40 per cent funded; its budget shortfall is $26.5 million. As a consequence, planned food handouts were cut back, leaving tens of thousands of malnourished people without assistance.

During a mission to Syria in September, Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, was highly critical of the world's response to the Jazeera's plight, calling it "unacceptably low" and accusing donors of politicising their aid programmes.

Syria has long been at odds with the foreign policies of western powers and remains under US economic sanctions over its support for Hizbollah and Hamas, groups that Washington considers terrorist organisations.

A detailed breakdown of the WFP's food aid programme budget in Syria, dated February 7, shows that since the original emergency appeal was launched in 2009, Oman has been the largest single donor, contributing almost $8m. The European Commission has given $2.8m, Sweden $1.5m, and Saudi Arabia and Australia about $780,000 each.

As part of the aid programme, the WFP plans to give 300,000 people enough food to cover 75 per cent of a person's recommended daily food intake until the emergency appeal ends in May.