Crisis in Syria: an interview with Abeer Etefa of the UN World Food Programme

file photo of WFP distributing food in Syria

The fighting in Syria between rebels and the government has claimed thousands of lives. Another tragedy is also fast emerging within the country: hunger and malnutrition.

Food supply systems have been disrupted by the conflict. The UN World Food Programme (WFP), the largest food aid organization, is responding to this emergency.

Abeer Etefa, the senior spokesperson from the WFP Middle East headquarters, provides us an update on the humanitarian crisis taking place now in Syria.

How many people are in need of food aid right now in Syria?

According to the latest Emergency Food Security and Nutrition Assessment conducted by WFP in 2010, prior to the unrest, 1.4 million people were considered to be food insecure in areas which have become conflict hotspots (Homs, Hama, rural Damascus, Daraa and Idleb). The concern is they now have become even more vulnerable. We are concerned that the longer the conflict continues, hunger will increase, and we estimate that 1.5 million people may potentially need food assistance.

How is WFP responding to the emergency?

WFP launched an emergency operation in December to cover the food needs of vulnerable people affected by the unrest in Syria. The project is currently underway until the end of 2012, in partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and is targeting each month 100,000 beneficiaries living in areas that have been most negatively impacted. Our food assistance has so far reached rural Damascus, Hama, Homs, Dara’a, Quneitra, Lattakia, Tartous, Deir Ezzor, Idleb, and Al-Hasakeh in Syria, yet, access remains challenging in some areas due to insecurity.

WFP is also launching a 3-month Special Operation to support the above mentioned project and further enable us to respond to operational disruptions in Syria as well as to respond timely to any openings in humanitarian space. Under the special operation, WFP is strengthening its logistics capacity within Syria to respond to any increases in needs including capacity building for WFP’s implementing partner, SARC, as well as filling any identified gaps for delivering assistance for humanitarian partners. We will also be increasing staffing capacity and prepositioning necessary equipments within Syria to ensure operations are conducted safely within the country.

On a contingency basis, we are also preparing for scaling up our humanitarian intervention in Syria as concerns grow about the deteriorating humanitarian situation.

WFP is also part of UNHCR’s Regional Response Plan (RRP) that aims to support refugee coordination and provide food assistance to those who fled to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Are we seeing higher food prices throughout Syria because of the conflict? Could hunger escalate even in areas outside of fighting?

Due to limited access, WFP has not been able to conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine and update the food security situation since our last assessment in late 2010, which found that insecurity and a lack of funds was already limiting people’s ability to buy food.

In urban areas of Damascus, food is available and bakeries are still functioning, but with reduced hours and limits on how much bread each person can buy. Outside of Damascus, a bread shortage has been reported several times during periods of conflict. However, there is no doubt that people’s livelihood and food security throughout the country has further been affected by the unrest, coupled with high food prices, a lack of purchasing power, and internal displacements. On the other hand, the unrest has also hit families already affected by a prolonged drought in north-eastern Syria – the grain basket of the country – where more than half of the country’s poorest population lives. Indeed, WFP is deeply worried that hunger will increase the longer the conflict continues.

WFP relies on voluntary donations. Is funding for the humanitarian response in Syria an issue?

WFP has appealed for USD 20 million to fund its ‘Emergency Food Assistance to People Affected by Unrest in Syria’ project. Our shortfall for this project stands at 45%. We are also requesting USD 4.7 million to fund our Special Operation and USD 10.5 to fund our assistance for the Syrians who fled to neighboring countries as part of UNHCR’s Refugee Response Plan (RRP).

What is the best way for individuals to get involved with WFP and help Syria?

To help us respond to the Syrian and other emergencies:

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