UN FAO Says Food Situation In Syria Not Yet Famine But Warns People 'in Trouble'
People who are suffering from food insecurity in Syria are in serious trouble, but the situation has not yet reached a catastrophic level where people are dying of famine, Daniel Gustafson, the deputy director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told Sputnik as Syria marks the eighth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria
Gustafson said that the FAO distinguished five categories in its classification of food insecurity, with the fifth category being the most dangerous one, indicating a catastrophe or famine.
"If you think of phase five as catastrophic, at the moment no one is in phase five. But the overall food insecurity number is 6.5 million, one-third of the total population, and those are people who we are focusing on. They are in serious trouble, but not starving," Gustafson said.
On March 15, 2011, civil uprisings broke out in Syria, with protesters demanding democratic reforms. What started as opposition rallies evolved into global unrest and clashes between government forces and protesters, and subsequently led to a devastating civil war, which has claimed over 560,000 lives, and produced more than 5.6 million refugees and over 6 million internally displaced persons.
However, the situation in the country has significantly improved as of late thanks to the active involvement of foreign states and international organizations. After years of fighting against rebels and terrorist groups, only a few strongholds of insurgency remain in Syria. As refugees and internally displaced people are already actively returning to their homeland from neighboring states and temporary shelters inside the country, infrastructure is being restored, with a special focus on medical facilities.
Gustafson voiced the belief that the situation in Syria had seen a significant improvement over the past year, with the conflict abating, refugees actively returning and the agricultural situation ameliorating after the "exceptionally bad" previous year.
"Certainly, the situation is different with regard to food security than it was a year ago. More people are under government control, more people have returned, and there is less conflict, so that's different," the FAO deputy head said.
"In the old days, before the crisis, Syria, in terms of wheat, was producing about 4 million tonnes. Last year when I was here, we were talking about a good harvest of 2 million tonnes. But last year had a severe drought, the worst production since 1989, and it was down to about 1.2 million tonnes ... This year should be much better in terms of harvest. Last year was exceptionally bad, exceptionally dry," Gustafson said.
PROBLEMS RETURNING REFUGEES FACE
When asked what problems refugees faced upon returning to their homeland, Gustafson said that the hardships included the poor state of infrastructure and agriculture, as well as the deteriorated environmental situation. He specified that those problems were common both for the long-term refugees and for those who had been away for a short time only.
"In all the cases, the impact of the previous conflict is really high in the agricultural sector. It's really high in terms of destroying market linkages, you can't get imports, you don't have a market to sell, you are kind of aware that how the agricultural sector used to work is disrupted, so you are coming back to a different situation. At the same time, a lot of the infrastructure, including land and water, is much worse after the conflict than it was prior to the conflict," the FAO deputy director general said.
He voiced the belief that agriculture was still a "good option to return to," since a returnee could get back to cultivating land upon receiving support from one's family and from the outside as well.
"In some way going back could even improve your food security if you can produce for your family, and if you can produce vegetables and meat, you could start selling it, then by going back you can get your livelihood going on. Nevertheless, if you do go back, you have to have conditions in order to do that, including, for example, water in the areas for irrigation, or if there is no market and you cannot sell things, it's not going to work," Gustafson said.
The UN official specified that external support could be related to such issues as animal vaccination or the rehabilitation of irrigation systems.
Gustafson also confirmed that the situation remained tense in Syria's Rukban and Al-Hol refugee camps, where humanitarian conditions have long been raising public concerns, and praised UN bodies for their help in tackling the problem.
"Those [Rukban and Al Hol] are the two most serious situations for sure and consequently the ones that have the greatest humanitarian need in terms of shelter, food, water and so on that are dealt with by UNHCR [High Commissioner for Refugees], UNICEF [UN International Children's Emergency Fund], WFP [UN World Food Programme]," Gustafson said.
"They are in the area in those camps where they can't produce: they don't have water, they don't have land, they are in the middle of nowhere ... That's where we would be able to help: to make it feasible for them to go back, they would need some support," Robson said.
He added that the agricultural sector offered great opportunities, but people at least needed "minimal conditions" to make use of it, and that was something that the residents of the camps were currently deprived of.
RETURNEES NEED WATER, EQUIPMENT, SEEDS, CLEAN LAND
"Water would probably be the most critical factor, though there are also other things that you can do for livestock, vaccination, other kinds of services for your animals, as well as how to rehabilitate the lands. For example, it may have been contaminated, or you may have unexploded ordinances," he said.
The representative voiced regret over the poor condition of the land after years of conflict, saying that it could impede farmers' activities.
"There was land contamination caused by attempts to do oil refining in the southeast of the country, along the Euphrates River in Deir Ez-Zor. What they are doing is they are not using the proper equipment, and it ends up in chemical contamination. Also, if they have not been doing irrigation properly, they have a lot of salt on the land, and that again requires rehabilitation," he said.
Robson added that lack of equipment was also a problem, since much of it had been stolen, vandalized or damaged during shelling.
In the meantime, Gustafson emphasized the need to deliver high-quality seeds to farmers so that they could boost their harvests.
"Generally, farmers, especially for wheat and other cereals plant seeds that they saved from previous harvests. But because of the drought, the quality of the seeds from last year is not very good. Once you break this chain in production of the seeds, then you have troubles of seed distribution. You have to deliver seeds from somewhere else, and that we have done also in the past," he said.
"Russia is a new one. It's the first time Russia made a specific contribution it's for Aleppo, and it's to work on water of course, on animal health and on seeds. It's $3 million for 2019-2020. It's not a very large contribution, but it's very targeted, for Aleppo, and so I think it will make a big difference, because it's so specific," he said.
"Italy's help is mostly focusing on women, trying to help them start their businesses ... In some cases, they lost husbands, or their husbands are fighting in the armed forces, in some cases they left the country to avoid fighting ... Women-run households in Syria went from 10 percent to 50 percent in the last seven years," Robson said.
Ahead of the third Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, which was held in Brussels earlier this week, Gustafson said that he hoped the FAO would get $120 million to put toward the Syria's agricultural sector out of the total $3.3 billion that the United Nations had requested for the response inside Syria.
Meanwhile, the donors who attended the conference in Brussels made a collective pledge of a record $6.97 billion to help Syrians both inside and outside the country in 2019. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock had hoped to raise $6 billion for Syria and its neighbors, so this year's donations certainly exceeded expectations.