The United Nations has warned that a looming drought in Syria could push millions more people into hunger and exacerbate a refugee crisis caused by the three-year conflict.
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.
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"A drought could put the lives of millions more people at risk," Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN aid agency World Food Programme (WFP), told a news briefing on Tuesday.
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 tonnes, as much as 29 percent less than last year and about half of pre-conflict levels, the WFP said.
Barley and livestock production are also being hit.
Lack of funds
The threat posed by drought meant the number of Syrians in need of emergency rations could rise to 6.5 million, up from 4.2 million now, Byrs said.
In addition to the worst drought since 2008, the war has ravaged infrastructure, leaving long-term damage to irrigation due to damaged 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, it 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, which feeds hungry people around the world, says the operation in Syria is its biggest and most complex, costing more than $40 million a week.
Overall, the UN has received just 16 percent of the $2.2 billion sought for its aid operations inside Syria this year.
Meanwhile, the UN human rights chief on Tuesday blamed most of the crimes perpetrated in Syria on the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Navi Pillay repeated her contention that abuses committed by both rebels and regime forces should be documented and brought to the International Criminal Court.
"But you cannot compare the two," she said. "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.