Africa
5:07 pm
Sun April 13, 2014

Drought Could Complicate Already Difficult Food Crisis In Syria

Originally published on Sun April 13, 2014 6:03 pm

The war in Syria, now in its fourth year, has created a massive humanitarian crisis. More than 2 million Syrians have left the country in an attempt to escape the conflict. Millions more have been displaced inside Syria, forced to leave their homes to survive.

In March, the United Nations World Food Programme reported that a potential drought in the area could significantly hurt food production in Syria:

"Large rainfall deficits in the 2013-2014 season will have a major impact on Syria's next cereal harvest. With three quarters of the rainfall season gone, it is unlikely that there will be a significant recovery in this agricultural season."

That could also make a disastrous situation much worse. Dina El-Kassaby, a public information officer for the World Food Programme based in Amman, Jordan, says getting food to areas stuck in the middle of combat is already very difficult.

"The World Food Programme moves around 40,000 tons of food each month across Syria," El-Kassaby tells Tess Vigeland, guest host of All Things Considered. This involves moving more than 3,000 trucks through conflict zones and checkpoints controlled by the government as well as other armed groups.

The impact of a looming drought, El-Kassaby says, could potentially push thousands or millions more into food insecurity. She says what they see now is similar to a major drought that hit the country in 2008.

"Many people that were affected by that drought didn't have time to recover before they were hit by the impact of fighting," she says.

One woman El-Kassaby met at a shelter who had not had any food assistance for eight months. Living in a former classroom with five other families, she said that she had to decide each day whether she would feed her 10 children or save what little food they have for the next day.

The operation in Syria is the World Food Programme's largest and most complex. It costs $41 million a week to meet the foods needs of those affected by the conflict in Syria, El-Kassaby says.

"The minute that funds come in, they are immediately spent on food and spent on the operation," she says. She adds, "This is a massive crisis and it requires a global response."

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. The war in Syria has created a massive humanitarian crisis, rippling out from the conflict zones inside Syria to the refugee camps across the country's borders. Now, an additional threat is looming. The United Nations World Food Programme reported this past week that a bad drought in the area might significantly lower the harvest in Syria.

We reached out to Dina El-Kassaby. She a public information officer for the World Food Programme. She's based in Amman, Jordan. And she described the already difficult process of getting food to the millions of people in refugee camps and behind battle lines.

DINA EL-KASSABY: The World Food Programme moves around 40,000 tons of food each month across Syria. So this involves over 3,000 trucks navigating through checkpoints controlled by the government, controlled by armed groups. So insecurity is definitely our greatest challenge inside the country and access to people in areas that are besieged or cut off.

We need access to people on a constant basis to be able to assess the ongoing needs and to be able to reach them every month and deliver food, because food, unlike other things like blankets or mattresses, needs to be replenished every month once it's consumed.

VIGELAND: As if things weren't bad enough, there is a report out this week from the U.N. warning that a bad drought could significantly reduce how much food will be grown inside Syria this year. If the situation is already dire, how much worse could it get?

EL-KASSABY: The impact of a looming drought hitting particularly the northwest of the country, which is mainly Aleppo and Hama, which are some of the main agricultural areas in the country, could potentially push thousands more or millions more into food insecurity. The signs that we're seeing now are very similar to what we saw in 2008 when a major drought hit Syria. And many people that were affected by that drought actually didn't have time to recover before they were hit by the impact of fighting.

VIGELAND: You know, Dina, this conflict in Syria is so immense, it can be really hard to wrap your head around it. Could you put a human face on what people are going through there?

EL-KASSABY: Actually just about a month ago I was in Qamishli in northeast Syria where food needs are massive. Displacement is beyond what you can imagine. And I actually visited a shelter which was once a school. And I visited a woman called Hassna(ph) who was living in a classroom with five other families. She has ten children of her own. She's lost her husband. And she was telling me that the last time she received food assistance was eight months ago. So I asked her, OK, so without food assistance how do you survive and how do you feed your children? And she told me that she has to wake up in the morning and decide, do I feed my children today or do I save this food for tomorrow?

The luxury that we have in the West as privileged people who take the fact that we have a meal every day for granted is something that really puts into perspective the suffering of people who have been displaced, who have lost everything and are really just surviving day to day.

VIGELAND: I know the World Food Programme relies on voluntary donations from the international community. Do you have enough support to provide all this aid that's needed there?

EL-KASSABY: This is the largest operation that the World Food Programme is running today. It is the most complex. It costs $41 million a week to meet the food needs of people affected by the conflict in Syria. We, of course, are running basically a hand-to-mouth operation. The minute that funds come in, they're immediately spent on food and spent on the operation.

We rely on valuable donors like, you know, the United States, Canada, Europe. But this is a massive crisis and it requires a global response. So we hope that nontraditional donors will come forward and provide assistance and support. And including individuals like you and me. We can donate online and help alleviate the suffering of Syrians who have lost everything.

VIGELAND: Dina El Kassaby is a public information officer for the U.N.'s World Food Programme and she spoke with us from Amman, Jordan. Dina, thank you so much and best wishes.

EL-KASSABY: Thank you.

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