UN says there's unprecedented demand for food aid

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The World Food Program's top official said it's unprecedented that the U.N. aid agency finds itself simultaneously responding to half a dozen major crises in addition to helping the largest number of refugees in the world since World War II.

Ertharin Cousin said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press that the number of people who need food aid continues to grow, and the demands are overwhelming the donor community which has been "incredibly generous," led by the United States which has given WFP $1.6 billion.

There are currently four top-level humanitarian crises — in Iraq, Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan — as well as hundreds of thousands of people caught up in the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and more than 50 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people scattered around the world, she said.

Because of funding shortages and increasing demands from the four crisis countries, refugees, and countries hit hardest by Ebola, Cousin said WFP has been forced to cut some rations and distributions.

WFP is funded from donations and over 90 percent of its budget comes from governments, many of whom have their own financial and domestic challenges, Cousin said. "So we are imploring them to continue to dig deep because we live on a very small planet and we cannot prioritize one hungry children over another."

Even in Syria, where WFP in August increased the number of people receiving food to 4.1 million after working for years to increase access, "we're going to need to cut rations to those people we're supporting inside Syria (and) to cut the size of the vouchers to those Syrians who are refugees outside Syria," she said.

Cousin said that in the last two months, the Syrian government and opposition have begun to respond to WFP requests for more access which has led to increased aid deliveries across conflict lines in the country. Humanitarian convoys are also crossing into Syria through two checkpoints in Turkey and one in Jordan, as authorized by the U.N. Security Council, she said.

Cousin said that WFP can't get into areas controlled by the Islamic State militant group, which controls a large swath of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, but the agency has been able to get some food in through local non-governmental organizations or the Syrian Red Crescent — though not enough. She said local NGOs tell WFP "they are very concerned, particularly about minority populations and minority religious groups, and their access to food and water and other non-food items."

WFP is currently reaching approximately 880,000 people in Iraq and is aiming to reach 1.1 million, she said, adding that the Iraqi government also needs to resume operation of its public food distribution system.

In West Africa, Cousin said WFP has been working with the World Health Organization since March to provide food to those needing medical treatment for Ebola.

The agency is currently helping 185,000 people and is working to scale up to one million people so people in affected areas can be isolated, and still receive food and water, while those people needing treatment are identified, she said.

Cousin said WFP helped avert a famine in Central African Republic and hopes to avoid one in South Sudan where there has been no planting season.

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