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Syria’s parched farmlands bring poverty to families

Eastern Syria has been experiencing a water crisis for the past five years and a report from the United Nations says the shortage of water has plunged around 800,000 people into extreme poverty and displaced thousands more.

The situation cannot be blamed entirely on the weather, with poor management of water resources also contributing. Many families, who used to make a living from agriculture, are now struggling to survive.

Worrying about unrest due to hunger and poverty, the government last month lowered duties on staple foods such as rice, tea, powdered milk, coffee and bananas. Customs duties on rice were dropped to 1 per cent (from 3 per cent) and import tariffs on bananas were halved from 40 to 20 per cent. Taxes were also lowered on vegetable oil, margarine, unroasted coffee and sugar. With families in Syria spending nearly half their household income on food, even small hikes in prices can lead to food insecurity. One estimate puts the number of food insecure people at nearly 4 million.

The Syrian authorities began offering cash handouts last month to 420,000 poor families where earnings were less than 70 dollars per month. These payments were made by the National Social Aid Fund, which was set up by the government in January. According to a 2005 UN report, around a third of Syrians live below the poverty line and just above 10 per cent live below subsistence level. The many years of drought in some parts of the country will only have served to increase these levels.

The amount of rainfall Syria received in the last couple of years was higher, but certain areas didn’t have enough and crops still failed. The World Food Programme (WFP) has responded by providing emergency food supplies and food supplements for children. A spokesperson for the WFP said that around a quarter of rural populations in five governorates surveyed were experiencing food insecurity. Yellow rust crop disease in some areas has also reduced crop yields. The WFP said more money and assistance would be needed in Syria, since its appeal for the country fell short of the target.

Last week, the International Monetary Fund warned Middle Eastern countries that they should focus on inclusive growth and targeting help for the poorest citizens. The wave of unrest sweeping the region is seen by some in the Middle East as a wakeup call for governments. Alertnet reported that at a recent meeting of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein, Princess Haya Al Hussein, warned delegates “food is the most basic human need. When it’s not met, people do take action.

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