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By UNICEF Australia
12 May 2016

Children have lost lives and limbs. They have lost classrooms and teachers, brothers and sisters, friends, caregivers, homes and stability. Instead of learning and playing, many have been forced to work for their survival while others are being recruited to fight on the frontlines.

But for Syrians who remain in the country, dangers like starvation and dehydration can be a more pressing threat than being killed by bombs or gunfire. While more traditional weapons of war continue to kill civilians, essential needs like food and water are being weaponised too.

A boy is carrying bags of what looks like rice.
Local community members help offload and distribute humanitarian aid supplies in Madaya.
© UNICEF/UN07221/Al Saleh, WFP

"The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime. All sides...are committing this and other atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law."

Ban Ki-moon
U.N. Secretary-General

Supply shortages in the town of Madaya recently brought the world’s attention to the deadly impacts of siege as a tactic of war. Across Syria, there are over a dozen other towns like Madaya, where different parties to the conflict have deprived children and innocent civilians from accessing lifesaving supplies and services.

Food restrictions

In the last year alone, staple food prices in many parts of Syria have doubled. A kilogramme of rice now costs an average family more than six times what it did before the war. Even worse, the deliberate restriction of live-saving basic food from areas under siege is forcing children into dangerously poor health and even death. 

Now, malnutrition is a silent and worsening threat for Syria’s residents. “Hidden hunger”, a combination of malnutrition and dangerous vitamin and mineral deficiencies, has been slowly undermining children’s ability to develop and thrive for years. Today, there is good reason to fear a generational threat of irreversible nutritional damage – particularly among very young children in their critical first 1,000 days of growth. 

“When we finally entered the city in the dark, it was very clear that families had crossed the brink of disaster. Children stood under the rain watching with empty eyes, so weak they could barely walk. There was one sentence they repeated desperately 'Do you have a piece of bread?'“ says Hanaa Singer, the UNICEF Representative in Syria.

A young girl is holding a piece of bread
A girl in Madaya eats bread as she and other children and their families wait for permission to leave the besieged town. UNICEF and a convoy of partner organisations were able to provide live-saving supplies to the people of Madaya.
© UNICEF/UN07224/Al Saleh, WFP

After regaining access to Madaya, UNICEF, as part of a UN, ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy delivered micronutrients, high energy biscuits, therapeutic food and medication for the treatment of severe and acute malnutrition.

Control of water resources

Unsafe drinking water and poor hygiene practices are multiplying the risks of infections and illness among children. More than two-thirds of children – 70 per cent – in Syria are without safe and reliable water.

In some cases, parties to the conflict have cut water deliberately, using it as a tactic of war and depriving millions of civilians of clean water for drinking and domestic use. In early 2016, UNICEF reported that water in Aleppo was cut for 48 days.

Tactics include shutting water off at the source, airstrikes and ground attacks on water facilities and hindering access for civilian workers to maintain, repair and operate facilities.

UNICEF leads the provision of water and sanitation services to the population of Syria. UNICEF’s programming delivers water and sanitation services for Syrian people in all governorates of the country, focusing on three types of services:

  • emergency delivery such as water trucking and sanitation kits assist 2.4 million people;
  • rehabilitation of infrastructure systems, including systems damaged by military attacks, provides water to 7.8 million people;
  • provision of water disinfectant for pumping stations supports clean water delivery to 12 million Syrians across all governorates.

Limited medical access

Few health workers are now left in Syria to monitor and protect children. Half of all medical staff have fled the country and only one third of hospitals are functional. Each doctor used to look after the needs of around 600 people – now it’s up to 4,000. And when medical aid professionals are denied access to areas under siege, preventable diseases and illnesses can prove deadly.

When UNICEF and WHO were allowed back into Madaya, medical staff found many children suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition. Two teenage boys, usually less vulnerable to the risk of malnutrition, were dying.

As UNICEF staff worked to resuscitate them, Ali, 16, passed away. His friend, Mohammad, lay emaciated beside him. “We were able to evacuate Mohammad with the support of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the hope of saving his life. But it was too late. Mohammed was too weak and he died, two days later in the hospital,” says Hanaa Singer, the UNICEF Representative in Syria.

A young child is assessed for malnutrition
On 14 January 2016, a child is screened for malnutrition at a make-shift hospital in Madaya. Most of the children screened by UNICEF on this day showed signs of moderate to severe malnutrition.
© UNICEF/UN07558/Singer

Sexual assault

Sexual violence has been used in conflicts across the world to humiliate children and women, destroy communities and exacerbate the already devastating impact of war.

In Syria’s conflict zones, sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war. Boys as young as 13 have been repeatedly raped, young girls impregnated and children abducted, bought and sold as sex slaves. UNICEF has verified thousands of violations against Syrian children in order to expose and end these brutal acts.

No child too far

UNICEF believes in a fair chance for every single child, without exception. It's why  our teams in Syria are committed to the hard and dangerous work of reaching children under siege; why our staff will cross rivers and deserts to reach children in the world's most remote communities.

You can make it possible. A monthly gift provides the reliable resources UNICEF needs to continue its work in more than 190 countries, delivering lifesaving water, health and nutrition supplies wherever children need us most.