In 2014, disasters, internal conflict and humanitarian emergencies impacted millions of people, uprooting whole villages and changing lives forever. Emergencies like the Ebola outbreak can interrupt planting seasons and severely damage the sale and production of food in some areas. Conflicts in Syria and South Sudan have caused similar disruptions and displaced millions of people, often along with their livestock. In these situations, food insecurity tends to increase significantly, requiring wide-scale humanitarian efforts. In this interview with Dominique Burgeon, Coordinator of FAO’s resilience work and Director of FAO’s Emergency and Rehabilitation Division, you can learn more about what FAO is doing to help communities restore their livelihoods while delivering much-needed emergency assistance.
What is the mission of FAO’s Emergency and Rehabilitation Division?
Dominique Burgeon: TCE is responsible for coordinating the development and maintenance of corporate tools and standards so that FAO’s Decentralized Offices can better help our member countries to prepare for, and respond to, food and agriculture threats and crisis. The Division coordinates and disseminates humanitarian policy and knowledge, liaises with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee [i] as well as with humanitarian resource partners, co-leads the global Food Security Cluster with WFP and is responsible for organizational preparedness, surge capacity and response to large-scale emergencies. TCE supports food security and nutrition assessments and early warning activities related to emergency and humanitarian analysis and responses. The Division also plays a major role in developing and leading the Organization’s efforts to increase the resilience of livelihoods to food and agriculture threats and crisis.
In 2014, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa gained a lot of visibility around the world as other countries were concerned about being affected. How has it impacted food security, availability and crop production?
DB: The Ebola crisis is having an impact on food security and availability because in some of the affected countries it was planting time and people were not able to
Kolahun City - Lofa Co, Liberia. Main market scene with empty stalls after disruption of selling due to fear of gathering. ©FAO
plant. And now at harvest time there are labour shortages. Today, the drop in crop production is 3 percent in Guinea, 8 percent in Liberia and 5 percent in Sierra Leone. This varies by region too – in some areas of Liberia, for instance, we estimate losses of paddy crop of over 20 percent. Even in areas where people are able to harvest, some of the production cannot be marketed because of movement restrictions. And so the price in rural areas is dropping, and there is not enough food available in urban centres, pushing prices up. This has created a problem of access to food. This is a very complex situation and we are currently focusing on assessing the exact impact on food security to devise the most appropriate response. The longer this crisis goes on, the larger the impact on food security.
In terms of the number of people affected, other crises in Syria and South Sudan have affected many more lives. What is FAO doing to help in those cases?
DB: The conflict that started in South Sudan last December has had an enormous impact on food security in the country. By May 2014, 3.5 million people were
FAO also conducted Master Trainer programs in South Sudan. After two months of intensive training the graduates received their certificates. ©FAO/C. Spencer
experiencing severe food insecurity (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Phases 3 ‘Crisis’ and 4 ‘Emergency’). From the onset of the violence, FAO committed to stay and deliver – despite attacks on some offices and displacement of staff in the conflict-hit states (Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile). FAO worked with NGO, UN and government partners to analyse the effects of conflict on food security and revise the IPC map to guide humanitarian response to the people most at risk. In 2014, FAO in close collaboration with WFP and UNICEF has assisted over 2.9 million people in South Sudan through a mixture of livelihood kits that have helped almost half a million families to plant crops and vegetables or start fishing, and animal health support that has involved vaccinating 1.6 million and treating almost 900 000 livestock. This was possible thanks to the generous contributions of a number of donors including the US which provided a total of USD 10 million to FAO’s programme in South Sudan in 2014. Despite considerable logistical challenges, FAO found new ways to get inputs to the people that need them in close coordination with other UN humanitarian organizations. In addition to ongoing support to IPC analysis, FAO continues to co-lead the Food Security Cluster with WFP. Preparations are already underway to protect and enhance food production in 2015. Agricultural inputs, vaccinations and medicines are being pre-positioned, the cold chain system is being strengthened, training sessions are being planned and fuel-efficient stoves are being distributed.
FAO and PLAN worked together reach beneficiaries and distribute livelihood kits. ©FAO/C. Spencer
The most important contribution to agriculture, livelihoods, food security and nutrition in South Sudan – and elsewhere – is, however, peace. The reality is that while conflict continues, so too will hunger, malnutrition and destitution – a reality for which FAO must be prepared.
In Syria, FAO has been supporting vulnerable affected rural and peri-urban families since the very start of the crisis in 2011, helping them to mitigate its effects on their food security and livelihoods. To-date, FAO has assisted more than 480 000 people – contributing to increased household crop production by distributing cereal and vegetable seeds; facilitating access to fresh, nutrient-rich foods through backyard food production; and helping small-scale herders to keep surviving livestock healthy and productive. Working with WFP, FAO has supported the coordination and joint planning of the food and agriculture response in order to ensure effective and timely delivery of aid.
As the 2014/15 winter agricultural campaign progresses, FAO is preparing to assist nearly 217 000 people to plant wheat, barley, vegetable and legume seeds as well as potato tubers. A large animal health care campaign will soon start, targeting the livestock of more than 560 000 people across Syria. With the collapse of veterinary services in Syria, the risk of diseases spreading within and outside the country posing a global threat to health security is very high and mitigation measures are urgently needed.
From the beginning of April until the end of June, 45,000 laying hens and 150 metric tons of poultry feed were distributed to 3,000 families living in more than 100 villages in Rural Damascus. ©FAO/Syria
What are the biggest challenges you find in addressing these complex situations in Syria?
DB: The Syrian crisis is now in its fourth year. While the humanitarian situation deteriorates, the delivery of aid has been severely constrained by ongoing conflict, progressively worsening security and limited access to communities and people in need. Some 9.8 million people are considered food insecure, including 6.8 million who are highly food insecure. The crisis has severely limited food production, marketing and imports. Livelihood loss, deepening poverty, inflation and the depreciation of the Syrian pound have further eroded the capacity of families to meet basic needs and cope with the crisis. Many families have adopted negative coping mechanisms, like reducing the number of meals they eat each day, or buying cheaper and less nutritious foods. While needs are increasing, funding is limited. The agriculture sector in particular has been largely underfunded over the last three years, despite the fact that it can address the growing food unavailability and access constraints.
What can people in the United States and Canada do to help?
DB: The United States has been a generous supporter of FAO’s interventions in Syria. However, with the constantly deteriorating food security, greater efforts are needed to rebuild and strengthen the productive capacities of the population through resilience-focused activities. Local food production must urgently be supported to improve access to and affordability of food, particularly among displaced families and their host communities. This requires not only the provision of agricultural inputs such as seeds, tools and fertilizers, but also the repair of damaged rural infrastructure where security permits, including irrigation canals, water troughs, storage facilities and market roads.
Insufficient support during 2015 would exacerbate the already fragile food security both in Syria and in neighbouring countries. Thousands of people will be left without agricultural livelihoods, crop production will continue declining and dependency on external aid will rise.
To learn more, visit FAO Emergencies.
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