By Erika Hernandez, Humanitas Global
The consequences of Syria’s war are disastrous, for which Western countries are not doing enough. Besieged places like Madaya are facing food blockades by the Syrian government and Hezbollah fighters as the town supports the opposition. According to Médecins Sans Frontiers, 23 people have starved to death since December 1 of last year and 250,000 are suffering severe levels of malnutrition. In an article today, the Washington Post interviewed a woman saying that her four children have not had milk nor food for seven months. The last food aid shipment that the town received dated back from October 18 of last year, and, since then, the town has not received any additional aid due to the siege. While estimates on the number of malnourished people and starvation-related deaths in Syria may vary among organizations and news media outlets, the development community needs to take urgent action. Not escalating humanitarian aid would essentially mean that we are withdrawing from our commitment of ensuring universal rights to the people of Syria. Moreover, it would signal that the development community remains interested working with countries capable of paying international loans from multilateral organizations, in exchange of 15-minutes of fame.
Just today, it was revealed that the United Nations managed to negotiate with the Syrian government the transportation of 50 vehicles carrying food and medical supplies to Madaya, whose expected arrival is the next few days. People in the town are looking forward to the arrival of this shipment as their main staples has been soup with grass and household pets. However, with the winter season, no leaves nor grass are left as the last food resources. To make things worse, Russian intervention has also conducted attacks against civilians, not to mention the unwillingness to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. For now, this food assistance will serve to feed 400,000 people for only a month.
Starving child in Madaya waiting for food supplies. Source: News Sources.
It is surprising that we are facing a potential case of famine at the midst of the 21st Century. Not only is disappointing the lack of willingness to negotiate among the different disputing factions and that the international community did not develop a timely intervention to halt the genocidal activities of the Syrian government.* What is more disappointing is that the countries that decided to intervene did so without a comprehensive strategy considering that the Syrian government would probably recur to extreme measures such as besieging opposition towns. History tells us that starvation/famine has been an effective instrument to crush dissent, as well as a byproduct of war and environmental disasters. The Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1962 strikes out for having left 43 million deaths caused by a failed agricultural policy by the Communist government. During 1932-1933, under Stalin’s leadership, peasant farms and livestock were destroyed and taken from them in order to implement the communist collectivization policy. The mass starvation and killings reached 10 million deaths. While protracted famine episodes could be over (it is unknown whether starvation has taken place in other Syrian towns and for how long), malnutrition is still common worldwide. According to the World Food Program, some 795 million of people do not have the enough food intake necessary to live a healthy life.
Some of the effects of malnutrition are irreversible. Symptoms at the final stage cannot be reversed and include reduced cognitive functioning and body damage. The World Bank found that poor cognitive skills in early childhood are highly correlated with lower living standards and the inability to attain higher incomes in adulthood. Physical damage includes teeth decay, bone weakening, hair loss, among others. Such permanent damage is and will continue to negatively impact social, economic and political policies in Syria in the next years. An unfortunate result is that this decade has become a “lost decade” for Syria. Recovery will take several years only if effective development assistance actions are taken by the international community in the near future. Good intentions need to be accompanied by programs that address long-term behavioral change of the Syrian society and build infrastructure. There is also a pressing need to establish comprehensive health and nutrition programs that ensure food access and nutrition security, as well as policies that address widespread stunting. The time is now.