A father and son walk amid the rubble of what was once the neighbourhood where they lived before it was destroyed by the earthquake that hit Syria in February 2023.
Child Stunting in Syria Could Reach Levels Never Seen Before as Earthquakes Threaten to Push 665,000 People into Hunger
The economic impact of the earthquakes that ripped through southern Türkiye and northern Syria 100 days ago threatens to push at least another 665,000 Syrians into hunger, with doctors and aid agencies warning that levels of child stunting and maternal malnutrition are reaching levels never seen before, said Save the Children today .
The number of Syrians acutely food insecure and facing hunger had already reached 12.1 million people—more than half the population—before the first devastating earthquake hit in the early hours of February 6.
About one in four children under the age of five—or more than 600,000 children—were already stunted across Syria, while in opposition-held North West Syria alone, child stunting rates had increased month on month from June to December 2022, and one in eight pregnant women were acutely malnourished.
Stunting has a lasting effect on a child’s development, both physically and mentally, and leaves them more susceptible to infection. Malnourished pregnant women run an increased risk of miscarriages, along with anemia and even dying during childbirth, while their babies may be born prematurely and, if they survive, suffer from stunted growth. Malnourished and stunted children are also at an increased risk of becoming severely ill or even dying if they contract cholera, which has been spreading across the country since the outbreak began in September 2022.
The earthquakes have since exacerbated the toxic combination of increased cost of living, loss of incomes, and a healthcare system pushed to the brink, threatening even more children with severe hunger.
A World Bank damage assessment published in March found Syria’s economy is expected to contract by at least 5.5% in 2023 following the earthquake. The impact also caused a spike in the cost of basic food items such as bread, which jumped 20% in some areas, while onions have become so expensive, they’re now considered a luxury item. The average monthly wage in Syria now only covers about a quarter of a family’s food needs.
Yanal,* 44, said his 10-month-old son has been suffering from severe malnutrition since the earthquake.
“Our situation was good. I worked as a daily worker. After the earthquake, we are sitting without doing anything and my son suffers from severe malnutrition. Every four days he needs a new container of milk, [but] I don’t have the financial means to buy milk. The situation is very dire,” he said.
Poor quality diets from six to 24 months of age place children like Yanal’s* son at risk during a critical period when a child has the greatest need for a diverse range of foods for healthy growth and development.
The earthquakes killed about 6,000 people and injured a further 12,000 across Syria. Of the 8.8 million Syrians impacted by the earthquakes, 3.7 million were children and pregnant women.
Even before the earthquake, Syria’s economy had been decimated by 12 years of conflict and the global economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the earthquakes partially or totally destroying dozens of health clinics across the country, Save the Children’s Regional Nutrition Adviser warns that it is going to be all the more difficult to fight an increase in hunger.
“Of the health clinics that remained after 12 years of conflict, many have now been destroyed by the earthquakes, while the compounding stresses of the conflict, the pandemic, and the earthquakes have taken an unbearable toll on healthcare workers. I fear there’s a real risk that this hunger crisis could spiral out of control,” said Antenanie Enyew, Save the Children’s Regional Nutrition Adviser.
Of the 80,000 doctors who lived in Syria before the war began, just 20,000 remain. Some areas of the country, including earthquake-affected areas, have just one doctor per 10,000 people.
Tareq,* 28, a doctor at a Save the Children-supported mobile health clinic in Syria, said the earthquakes have worsened the hunger crisis.
“The situation was already catastrophic. What worsened the situation was the earthquake, and the lack of medical services available in this area, as well as the difficulty of patients to reach the hospitals and health centers,” he said.
As was the case following COVID-19, the worsening economic situation following the earthquakes could again exacerbate the already high levels of child labor and child marriage and put children at greater risk of sexual exploitation, trafficking, and induction into armed groups.
Rasha Muhrez, Save the Children Syria Response Director, said:
“Stunting has already reached unprecedented levels, meaning millions of children’s physical and cognitive development will be forever impacted by a lack of nutritious food. It is shocking that this reality is now irreversibly sown into millions of children's lives. And it is alarming that many more could follow suit as the economic impact of the earthquake is likely to push even more children into devastating levels of hunger,” she said.
“The international community’s response to the crisis in Syria over the last 12 years has been stuck in a cycle of crisis response—without the ability to support Syrian families to rebuild their livelihoods and to protect themselves from future shocks. The earthquake exposed that, but the increased access and attention to parts of the country since the earthquakes has also offered the international community an opportunity to start supporting Syrian children long-term, allowing them to build back their resilience and giving them a better chance to offset the harm that has dominated their short lives so far.”
Save the Children is calling for unfettered access to all earthquake-affected areas and for donors to guarantee long-term funding so that aid agencies can make the necessary shift from treatment to prevention, which will not only be critical in fighting an increase in malnutrition, but will give families the long-term security they need to rebuild their resilience.
Save the Children has been providing assistance to children in need in Syria since 2012. Save the Children programming combines emergency and lifesaving interventions with early recovery activities that support the restoration of basic services and aims to reach every last child in need.
As part of the earthquake response, Save the Children is delivering aid through partners, responding in Idlib and Aleppo governorates, providing emergency food rations, blankets, tents, and warm clothing. Save the Children is also making sure children and their families can keep clean, healthy, and protected from illness and diseases, as well as providing protection services, including psychosocial support.
NOTES TO EDITORS:
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