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Syria: Drought could further strain already thin resources

UN says that lack of rain could add to the millions of Syrians already in need of food aid

A looming drought in Syria could push millions more people into hunger and exacerbate a refugee crisis caused by years of civil war, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

Syria's breadbasket northwestern region has received less than half of the average rainfall since September and, if it stays dry up to wheat harvest time in mid-May, the country – already reliant on aid for millions of people – will need to import even more food.

"A drought could put the lives of millions more people at risk," Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), told a news briefing.

Based on rainfall data and satellite images, and with the smallest area planted with wheat in 15 years, output of the cereal is likely to be a record low of between 1.7 million and 2 million tons, as much as 29 percent less than last year and about half of pre-conflict levels, the WFP said.

See more in-depth coverage on Syria's refugee crisis

Barley and livestock production are also being hit.

In addition to the worst drought since 2008, three years of civil war have ravaged infrastructure, leaving long-term damage to irrigation due to impaired pumps and canals, power failures and a lack of spare parts, the agency said.

This will have "long-lasting effects on Syria's agricultural production" even after peace is restored, WFP said.

The threat posed by drought means the number of Syrians in need of emergency rations could rise to 6.5 million, up from 4.2 million now, Byrs said.

The WFP, which reached a record 4.1 million people with rations in March, said on Monday that it had to cut the size of food parcels to hungry Syrians due to a shortage of funds from donors.

WFP says the operation in Syria is its biggest and most complex, costing more than $40 million a week.

The funding figure includes the feeding of 1.5 million of the 2.6 million registered Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

"We can expect more refugees to leave if, on top of the conflict, they feel that their lives are in danger because there is no food. But it's hard to say obviously because they could also move to other parts of Syria," Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, spokeswoman of the U.N. Refugee Agency, told reporters.

Overall, the U.N. has received just 16 percent of the $2.2 billion sought for its aid operations inside Syria this year, with the United States the largest donor at $108 million, followed by the European Commission at $53.7 million and the United Arab Emirates at $50 million.

Assad's culpability

Also on Tuesday, the U.N. human rights chief said that atrocities by the Syrian government "far outweigh" crimes by the opposition fighters. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is "mostly responsible" for the human rights offenses in the country's three-year civil war.

Pillay repeated her contention that both sides' abuses should be documented and brought to the International Criminal Court, "but you cannot compare the two. Clearly the actions of the forces of the government far outweigh the violations — killings, cruelty, persons in detention, disappearances, far outweigh" those by the opposition.

The commissioner spoke to the media after briefing the U.N. Security Council.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said her comments were "part of an orchestrated pressure campaign" against Syria.

Wire services

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