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Syria headed for record low harvest, UN warns

A delegation from the World Food Program, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization visited a Damascus suburb in March bringing humanitarian aid for residents.

Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

A delegation from the World Food Program, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization visited a Damascus suburb in March bringing humanitarian aid for residents.

BEIRUT — Syria is heading for a record low harvest this year, the United Nations warned Monday, putting the food supply for millions of civilians at risk as drought adds to the misery of the country’s war-weary population.

The organization’s food agency estimates that Syrian wheat production will plummet to a record low after limited rainfall over the winter. Wheat production is expected to reach a maximum of 2 million tons this year, less than half its annual need of 5.1 million tons, it said.

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As the crisis looms, the Syrian government said Monday that Iran had stepped in with a delivery of 30,000 tons of food aid — around the same amount the UN delivers in a month. The shipment is part of a wide package of support from the Iranian government, which has propped up its ally with weapons and oil through a $3.6 billion credit line.

While the United Nations attempts to ensure that the delivery of its aid is not politicized, there aren’t likely to be such restrictions on Iranian food aid, meaning it could delivered to Syria’s armed forces.

The delivery comes as the Syrian government enters campaign mode, with President Bashar al-Assad expected to run for reelection for a third seven-year term this summer.

The Syrian state news agency SANA said further shipments would follow ‘‘to ensure the flow of goods in the Syrian markets.’’

Before the Syrian civil war, the country produced much of its own food, but the fighting has prevented farmers from tending their fields, while prices for fuel and distribution problems have also hampered production.

Some of the regions impacted hardest by violence — Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama — also promise to be among the worst hit by drought. The areas of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Hassakeh are also expected to be severely affected.

With just weeks of Syria’s traditional rainy season left, rainfall has been less than half the usual average, the World Food Program said. It used satellite imagery to examine the impact on the country’s vegetation, saying there were ‘‘extensive delays’’ to crop development.

‘‘It comes in areas that are already suffering hugely,’’ said Abeer Etfa, a regional spokeswoman for the program. ‘‘It is a very fragile environment and we have issues of access. This could push more people into hunger, it could push more people out of the country.’’

Some 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced inside the country by the war, and more than 2.5 million have fled to neighboring countries — meaning almost half the country’s population has been uprooted.

Humanitarian agencies have been pushing for better cross-border access. UN trucks crossed from Turkey for the first time in March, taking food, bedding, and medicine to the northeastern city of Qamishli.

International agencies are also faced with huge funding shortfalls. The United Nations cut its food baskets by a fifth in March to reach more people. Less than half of the $2.3 billion pledged by the international community in January has materialized.

Syria was also hit by a severe drought in 2008, which lasted several years and displaced tens of thousands of people. The misery caused by the drought has been cited by analysts as one of the contributory factors to Syria’s uprising in 2011.

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