When Bashar Akkad recently visited Syria’s northern, government-controlled town of al-Raqqah, hotel staff did not serve him breakfast.
They could not find any bread in town.
For the first time in 16 years, he said, people in a neighbouring village began making their own bread in a traditional bakery. And its price rose from the government-subsidized 25 Syrian pounds for 1.5kg to 150 pounds at the private bakery. Bread is a staple in the Syria diet, eaten with almost every meal.
“It became expensive because it became rare,” Akkad said. “They told us each person is receiving one loaf of bread for three days. It’s becoming really scary now.
“If the security situation continues like this, people are not going to find bread. This is the start.”
He is not alone in his fears.
The World Food Programme said last week that it was concerned about rising food insecurity in Syria, as violence affects supply lines and damages bakeries; and as people fleeing the violence increase demand in their areas of refuge.
Aid scale-up not currently possible
And yet, WFP is not able to scale up its assistance to the growing number of people in need because of a lack of funding, difficult access to conduct assessments, and a limited number of implementing partners.
The government has designated the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) as the coordinator of humanitarian assistance in the country, through which most aid must be channelled. SARC says it can increase the local organizations it works with on the ground; but UN agencies complain SARC’s capacity is overstretched.
“Without the ability to have other partners on the ground and updated assessments of the humanitarian situation, we could not scale-up immediately,” Kate Newton, WFP deputy country director in Syria, told IRIN.
WFP is trying to build SARC’s capacity, has a partnership with one local charity in the central city of Homs, and is exploring possibilities of expanding its partnerships.
But even without a scale-up, funding has been an issue. There is a three-month delay between when WFP receives funding and when it can distribute a food package on the ground, because of the time it takes to procure and transport the food.
“The pipeline is very low,” Newton said.
Already, WFP has had to cut rations from about 1,300 kilo-calories per person per day in May to about 1,000 in order to reach more people with the money it has. It needs 15,000 tons of food on a monthly basis - at a cost of US$22 million - to reach 1.5 million people, or around $134 million for its operation in the first half of 2013.
The vast majority of the recipients (around 85 percent) are people displaced by the violence.
“The pipeline for January is OK, but after February, it’s completely empty,” Newton said. “We need to fill the pipeline now.” January and February are the coldest months of the year in Syria.
Syria currently has enough wheat reserves for one year and a half, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, which expects this winter’s crop to bring stocks to four million tons.
If the security situation continues like this, people are not going to find bread. This is the start.
But some observers question whether the government is painting an overly rosy picture.
There is little independent data about the success of this year’s harvest, but the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says there are several reasons to assume it was below average: rains were poor; insecurity prevented farmers from accessing their land; and a fuel and labour shortage led to some croplands not being harvested at all. In September, FAO forecast a production of 3.5 million tons of cereals in 2012, down from 4.7 million in 2011.
A worsening fuel shortage is jeopardizing the new planting season, which ends in December/January. When one aid worker recently visited Syria’s agricultural areas in the northeast, farmers told him: “Forget about oil to heat our homes; just give us diesel to irrigate our fields.”
In addition, Syria normally relies on imports for almost half of its domestic food needs: FAO predicts it will need to import more than five million tons of cereals for food and animal feed between July 2012 and June 2013 - up more than a third from last year. According to media reports, sanctions have affected Syria’s ability to buy grain on the market, though allied countries are said to have increased trade with Syria to help fill the gap.
Access to food
The government has not acknowledged a wheat shortage in the country.
Local media recently quoted Qadri Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs, as saying the country’s “bread crisis” was due to the shut-down of many mills - including 23 in the embattled northern city of Aleppo alone - and challenges transporting flour from one part of the country to another.
The country’s normal production of 8-9,000 tons of flour per day has been reduced by 40 percent, he said. It has exceptionally reached out to friendly countries because it may need to import as much as 100,000 tons of flour per month, he added.
The shortage is already being felt.
At the end of November, flour was hard to find even in supermarkets in Damascus, one of the least affected parts of the country. In Aleppo, people are largely dependent on private bakeries amid an acute bread shortage there. Entire neighbourhoods can be cut off from supplies for days at a time when heavy clashes are taking place.
Rebel groups and government officials have reportedly begun making deals to ensure people get the basics they need to survive. Last month, the civil revolutionary council in the northern town of Al-Bab and its surroundings announced on its Facebook page that it had signed an agreement with the governor of Aleppo to trade wheat stored in rebel-controlled silos for flour, fuel and heating oil from government areas.
WFP reports that most basic food items are generally still available in the market (with notable exceptions for periods of time in specific areas), but they are not always affordable. As unemployment increases, more and more Syrians are falling into poverty. Queues at government-subsidized shops are getting longer and even families not directly affected by the violence are showing up at the offices of aid agencies, begging for food.
Compared to the third quarter of 2012, wheat flour and sugar prices increased by 15 and 8 percent respectively in the last quarter, according to WFP’s latest food security monitoring bulletin. In Aleppo, the price of bread, if available at all, is 50 percent higher than in other governorates, having reached 250 Syrian pounds for 1kg. Even in Damascus, the price of eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables has risen dramatically.
The Ministry of Agriculture, together with WFP and FAO, is currently conducting a rapid assessment of food insecurity in the country.
While WFP has tried to maintain a diet that is culturally and nutritionally balanced in its Syrian food basket - providing bulgur, pasta and rice, instead of just one staple, in keeping with the varied diet in Syria - displaced people are struggling to complement the basics they receive in aid packages.
Host communities used to provide the displaced with extras like olives or the sweet halva, but they are increasingly unable to do so, as they struggle to provide for themselves.
At a crowded school in Damascus hosting displaced people from violent areas of the suburbs, single mothers feed their children salami and packaged cheese.
“I don’t know where I would be without the aid I receive at this centre,” said Ne’mma Harastani as she sat in the classroom that serves as her bedroom, surrounded by her children. “I have five children I can’t feed.”
Already, the World Health Organization is concerned about malnutrition potentially becoming a problem.
“The prolonged unrest has resulted in growing food insecurity, unhygienic living conditions, overcrowding, inaccessible or limited healthcare services and reduced immunization coverage for children under five years of age,” it said in a recent report. “These combined factors may have serious implications on the nutritional status of children under five years of age and pregnant and lactating women.”
SARC says it has already noticed a significant drop in the quality of Syrians’ food intake.
Working through SARC, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been able to reach one million people with food since the beginning of the year. Smaller groups like the Jesuit Refugee Service and the local NGO Syria Trust are also involved, but their food distribution figures are in the thousands.
As one aid worker put it, “the needs are more and more enormous,” and there simply is not enough aid to go around.
“We haven’t got food rations for everybody,” Newton said. Aid agencies have decided to prioritize the displaced, but “even then, there are not enough rations for all of them.”