Stark warning of dangers of Syrian famine from UN food programme chief

David Beasley, head of World Food Programme, tells The National a perfect storm of conflict, disease and economic collapse is under way

WFP chief David Beasley photographed with the C-17 shortly after it arrived in Accra, Ghana. Courtesy WFP
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Syria is in danger of slipping into famine as the country’s economic collapse, and that of neighbouring Lebanon, pushes food supply systems to the brink, the United Nations has warned.

David Beasley, the head of the UN's World Food Programme, issued the wake-up call in an interview with The National.

Figures compiled from the WFP’s extensive operations in Syria indicate that food prices are the highest on record after a collapse in the Syrian pound. Prices in the WFP’s food basket increased by 16 per cent in the latest monthly tally.

Mr Beasley said that an already bleak outlook in Syria for 2020 after a decade of war was rapidly worsening.

“If Syria continues to deteriorate and the availability of cash, availability of food and supply chain disruption on a country that’s already devastated by 10 years of war, famine could very well be knocking on that door,” Mr Beasley said.

The WFP provides food assistance for four million Syrians, as well as 1.6m compatriots displaced in neighbouring countries. The Syrians with remaining savings have been hit hard by the Lebanese banking crisis. With prices spiking, the WFP is shifting resources out of programmes that provided cash to households to pay for food and is now procuring supplies directly.

“If we send cash in, they don’t have anything to buy, so we are now having to convert cash to food,” he said. “Syria is deteriorating in a pretty serious way because the Lebanese economy has collapsed as has the banking system

“Those two economies are so linked by tradition and history," he added. "That has just had a devastating impact and now we’ve got real issues of food security in Lebanon, real serious.”

Mr Beasley became ill with Covid-19 as the pandemic first swept the globe. Recovered, he now spends his time on the phone or in meetings in Congress in Washington, DC, trying to persuade governments to push his agency’s annual funding above $10 billion (Dh36.7bn) this year, a substantial bump from 2019's $8.3bn. The need for increased resources is vast with not only the coronavirus-induced global shutdown but the threat of a locust plague and the ravages of climate change.

“Everything is at stake but month by month it’s all hands on deck. It’s not Chicken Little here saying the sky is falling - it really is falling,” he said.

“I was saying before Covid that the year 2020 was going to be the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

“Then desert locusts hit, then Covid hit and Covid has done nothing but exponentially exacerbate a crisis situation.”

Without the extra $2bn targeted, Mr Beasley’s concern is that there could be further shutdown or interruption of the global food supply systems. He is pleading with governments to keep farmers planting seeds and harvesting to ensure there is enough to eat.

The number of vulnerable countries is rising. “We’re looking at a remote possibility that 36 countries could face famine,” he said. “Over 10 countries right now that have over a million people each are already on the brink, so we are right at that line.”

The WFP oversees the logistical support for all UN agencies and so is at the heart of the body’s mobilisation in response to the pandemic.

Mr Beasley said it was a joke with some truth that his charter flights were the biggest airline network still operating at the height of the crisis. The WFP works from eight hubs around the world, including its UAE centre.

He spoke of his friendship with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, as a reliable supporter of the WFP. After a conversation between the two men early in the pandemic, the UAE provided three dedicated transport aircraft to support efforts to move supplies out of its hub, including a C17 Globemaster.

Mr Beasley greeted the C17 landing in Ghana with supplies for a field hospital that was then built a few days after the delivery.

“I said I've got to move more supplies and he didn’t blink an eye; he said you got it,” Mr Beasley recalled.

“He’s genuinely concerned that we have the access we need to help the victims.”

With more than 100 planes ready to carry 10,000 metric tonnes of supplies to those in need, Mr Beasley fears that failure to reach funding goals could interrupt his efforts. He waves a phone as he describes his constant lobbying efforts and the troubleshooting he is doing to keep borders open.

One of the harshest consequences of the lockdown is the impact on school-based meals programmes for children. At the peak of the restrictions there were 1.7bn children out of school globally.

The WFP has introduced distribution programmes in a number of countries for pupils, conscious that for many children that may be their only meal of the day.

“Where the schools are not open we are repurposing a lot of the programmes to move food rations to the schoolchildren who are not in school right now,” he added, speaking by video call from Washington.

“We are doing a lot of altering right now in a lot of different ways.”

After a 20-fold increase in the land area threatened by locusts, the agency is watching nervously where the plague will go next. “Just when you thought you had enough plagues and storms now comes the desert locusts. This is going to wreak havoc,” Mr Beasley said.

Along with the combined effects of price spikes (there was a 19 per cent increase in March in Yemen, where the WFP feeds nearly 13m people) and projected 20 per cent drop in global remittances, there is expected to be near doubling of those deemed to be in an acutely food insecure situation. “They’re not just going to bed hungry, they are literally on the brink of starvation,” he said.

WFP figures project that the number could rise to 260m from 135m. The current figure has risen from 85m just five years ago.