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Unrest does not deter agencies from assisting Syria’s people

Following three consecutive years of drought in the north east, farmers in Syria have now been struck by another problem – the invasion of an alien weed.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), nearly two-thirds of cultivated land in Syria has been infested by silverleaf nightshade (a native of America), which threatens cotton and wheat harvests. The weed takes vital nutrients from the soil, starving crops of sustenance. A spokesperson at the FAO explained nightshade seeds were probably brought to the Middle East in farm supplies. Because of its deep spiny roots, the nightshade is hard to remove and the FAO has set up a project to help farmers deal with the threat.

With rising global food prices and drought-affected harvests in northern areas, one estimate puts the number of food insecure people in Syria at nearly 4 million. Earlier this year, the World Food Programme (WFP) responded with emergency supplies and fortified foods for young children and mothers to rural populations in the north eastern regions of Al-Hasakey, Al-Ragga and Deir Ezzor. The WFP has also been supporting Iraqi refugees living in Syria through an electronic voucher scheme.

Following the recent unrest, shops in the north western region of Latakia were looted and equipment stolen. The WFP therefore set up a new secure location to distribute food to the refugees. Details of the changed location were sent via the mobile phones which receive the electronic vouchers. For its distribution to refugees in Damascus, Homs and Daraa, the WFP has been able to adapt so that 98 per cent of targeted beneficiaries have been helped.

Though some SOS staff have been affected by travel restrictions, all SOS children’s projects and the SOS Villages of Aleppo and Qodsaya in Syria have been reported as safe, though food stocks have been bought in case of emergency.

Across the country as a whole, one human rights organisation in Syria estimates around 1,100 civilians have so far been killed in the last two months of unrest. International agencies are particularly concerned for the population in Daraa to the south. There are unconfirmed reports of food flows being interrupted, as well as restrictions in access to water, electricity and medical services.

The European Union (EU) has now imposed sanctions on the Syrian president and other senior officials. The United States also implemented sanctions and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, recently urged President Bashar al-Assad to halt the violence and respond to the demands of his people. However, there are few indications the situation will be resolved soon. The Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moualem, commented that the latest EU sanctions would only serve to “harm Europe’s interest” and assured observers that Syria would “emerge from this crisis stronger”.

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