28 October 2008

Syrian drought exacerbates food crisis

Syrian drought exacerbates food crisis

Syria, a country that is usually self sufficient, now finds itself importing wheat from other countries for the first time in 15 years. The country is trying to cope with the effects of the worst drought in 40 years. Farmers and villagers in the east of the country are worst affected by the poor rainfall of the past 2 years, according to Abdullah Mawazini, the Public Information officer with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Damascus. People are leaving the countryside and heading for the city, looking for food and jobs. Beside causing other social issues, the long term effects of this migration is expected to further affect agricultural production.

The government is involved with plans to deal with the crises and has already distributed aid to around 29 000 families. ‘We cannot do anything with the help of the government’, says Mawazini, ‘and the work is also more strategic ac the governments knows the people and the areas and provides us with some lists of beneficiaries.’

Basic commodities are government subsidised and bread is prepared in government bakeries and prices regulated. ‘Bread is very symbolic’, says Mawazini, so people will not tolerate increases in bread prices. Hence the ongoing global food crisis has not affected the price of some basic commodities for Syrians. But the increases in fuel prices has caused significant increases through transport costs and related expenses.

Robin Lodge, Regional Public Information Officer with WFP, is based in Jordan but was in Damascus this week and answered the following questions:

The global food crisis is being felt throughout the world to varying degrees. The current drought in Syria obviously makes the issues more severe. How does this issue affect the region within which you work?

The countries in this region are defined as low to middle-income countries. You are unlikely to see starvation, although there are some areas with "alarming" malnutrition rates. The figures for severe acute malnutrition are for the most part within levels defined globally as "acceptable". Food insecurity, however, is a considerable problem, with many of the poorest living on less than two dollars a day and struggling to provide themselves and their families with sufficient food. The soaring food prices over the past year have meant that many such families are being pushed over the brink and regularly going short of food, or having to give up other services, such as health and education, to be able to afford food. It has also pushed many people who were hitherto able to provide for themselves into the vulnerable category. And while global prices have come down recently, this has not yet been reflected at the level of the market.

What exactly is at stake and how serious is this?

People's livelihoods are a stake. Growing discontent can also lead to violence and extremism. Governments are finding it harder to afford the food subsidies they are providing as social safety nets, yet any efforts to reform the subsidies is likely to provoke further discontent and violence. It is very serious.

How is the situation being exacerbated, if at all, by financial crisis worldwide? - The United Nations recently appealed for $20 million to help one million people in Syria cope with the drought. Do you anticipate a delay in financial assistance requested?

The effects of the financial crisis are twofold. First of all, it limits the ability of the countries in the region to provide social safety nets and secondly, it may inhibit donor governments from continuing to provide the desperately needed support to organisations like WFP. Our costs are going up every year, but we anticipate a harder struggle over the coming months to raise funds.

Could you comment on how different the situation is to Kenya's drought, and other places in the world suffering from drought and food shortages at the moment?

The drought is in Syria and Iraq too. But the main difference is one of scale. In developing countries like Kenya, where many of the poorest are living on the edge of survival, the effects of drought can be catastrophic. Here people are better able to withstand the effects, although humanitarian interventions are still required and urgent.

Is this a long term situation or do you anticipate better weather or planning to mitigate the consequences going forward?

I certainly do not anticipate better weather in the foreseeable future. But we can mitigate the effects with better preparedness, so we are not taken by surprise. Our colleagues at FAO are working on developing drought resistant seeds.

Besides the immediate funds sought, what else is needed in this region?

We are constantly working to improve and streamline our operations to bring down the costs. In many cases, we are looking at cash or voucher systems as opposed to food deliveries, particularly in urban settings, where food is available, but people do not have the funds to buy it. Such schemes also help to reduce our costs, as they obviate the need to pay for shipping, handling, storage and distribution.

Do you expect that this could become an emerging trend in developing countries?

I fear that, without huge investment in agriculture in the developing world, this trend is to stay with us. Specifically on the food prices issue, however, even the world's leading economists - who know far more than I do about the issue - are reluctant to give long-term forecasts.
A version of this article was published by the Industrial Organizational & Labour Studies Research Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal


Anonymous said...

Thank you Bilal , I wish you good luck , you have always a friend in Syria and in WFP

Abdullah Mawazini
WFP Syria
Public Information Officer

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