UN struggles to feed millions of Syrians

(CBS News) An estimated 5,000 Syrians are dying every month and 6,000 refugees are fleeing the country every day at a rate not seen since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, UN Refugee chief Antonio Guterres told the UN Security Council in an appeal for help today in New York. The scale and scope of this humanitarian disaster has strained organizations like the UN's World Food Program (WFP) which is struggling to secure resources and ways to feed and serve the millions affected during this more than two year old conflict.

"People cannot borrow. People do not have credit cards; people do not have a purchasing facility," said Muhannad Hadi, the Regional Emergency Coordinator for the World Food Program. "We have gotten to the stage where people receive food from the World Food Program inside Syria or they don't eat. It is very simple. There is no other way."

Watch: Funding crisis looms for World Food Program in Syria

That emergency program is now at risk of halting due to a lack of funds. The program needs $244 million dollars for operations inside Syria and in the region through the end of September. 

"If we don't get funding immediately, our programs will be disrupted in Syria during the month of August," he said.

Hadi told CBS News that the WFP spends around $27 million US dollars a week to feed around four million people inside of Syria and three million people living outside the country. That money is used to purchase a box of goods that is meant to feed a family of five people for one month. It includes oil, pasta, rice, occasional wheat flour, canned beans, sugar and sometimes nutritional supplements for the children. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other nongovernmental organizations help the WFP distribute the food. In order to function, WFP remains politically neutral.

Gulf Countries fail to provide aid

Without that immediate infusion of cash, Hadi says that the program will not be able to reach as many people. In order to raise money, the program is making an appeal to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Hadi is hopeful that they will be generous during the holy month of Ramadan particularly since "this is a regional crisis that affects everyone in the Middle East." Unfortunately, many of the Gulf countries have pledged money but not followed through with actual payment. The U.S pledged more than $815 million to various humanitarian efforts, a portion of that went to the WFP. The European states and Kuwait have also given millions.

The humanitarian outreach has also been limited by fighting which has made certain areas of the country impenetrable. Residents are cut off from the world. Hadi said that the WFP does not know how many people are stuck in towns like Haldi or Moutamia, which is in rural Damascus. They have been under siege for a long time and WFP's staff of 165 workers has not been able to access them in months.

"If somebody's holding a gun to your head and saying "go back," you would basically have to go back," he explained. Hadi said that deliveries require a massive logistics operation that involve between 700-900 trucks. He estimated that from Damascus to Homs or Aleppo, his workers have to drive in armored vehicles through around 50 checkpoints some of them run by the Assad government and some by the opposition. The staff, wearing flak jackets and helmets, negotiates each crossing.

Hadi said the risks are required particularly since there is no end in sight to the conflict. The situation has deteriorated dramatically over the past two years and it has hit children particularly hard.

"While we were feeding them in schools, now we're feeding them in shelters," he said.

Hadi is based in Jordan and spoke to CBS News in Washington following meetings with USAID and UN officials.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.

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