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Local residents carry packages of eggs and toilet paper from a store in Kyiv, on March 5. The World Food Programme has begun to deliver rations to the hard-hit capital.GLEB GARANICH/Reuters

The World Food Programme has begun delivering rations to besieged Kyiv but needs an immediate injection of cash from the international community if the effort is going to be sustained long-term.

A train carrying 30 tonnes of high-energy biscuits – enough to feed 30,000 people for five days – arrived by train in the Ukrainian capital on Friday from Lviv in western Ukraine, which the United Nations agency is using as an emergency hub. It’s the start of what the WFP expects will be one of its biggest operations in the world, trailing only such long-term crises as those in Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan and South Sudan.

But while the WFP expects to spend US$500-million on Ukraine over the coming three months, the international community has so far pledged just US$50-million, and has delivered none of that to date. Canada is among the countries that has yet to make a formal pledge.

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“Despite all the attention, the money’s not flowing,” said Robert Turner, chief of staff to WFP executive director David Beasley. He said the agency could continue its operations in Ukraine for only “a matter of weeks” without an injection of cash. “We know the money will come, but it’s critical that we get it early.”

The WFP projects that it could soon need to feed three million Ukrainians, an operation that would cost US$6-million a day. Another 400 tonnes of family rations – packages of dry goods and prepared food that are meant to sustain 60,000 families of five for five days – are expected to arrive in the coming week.

“That’s just the start. This is going to be a huge machine,” Mr. Turner said in an interview in Lviv. “In the next couple of weeks, we’re looking at dozens and then hundreds of trucks a day in humanitarian cargo.”

In addition to the supply corridor from Poland to Lviv, the WFP plans to develop a route from Romania that would use Chernivtsi, another city in western Ukraine, as a second hub for onward deliveries.

One immediate aim, Mr. Turner said, is to get as much food and other goods as possible into Kyiv while some roads into the capital are still open. “If it’s going to become besieged, we need to get as much supply as we can in as quickly as possible.”

Kyiv, which is surrounded on three sides by Russian forces and is under daily bombardment, had a prewar population of three million people. A few routes into the city from the south are the last ones still open to civilian traffic.

Some of the deliveries had been intended for Syria, but are being re-directed from storage facilities in Turkey because the situation in Ukraine is considered more urgent. In addition, the WFP is planning to work with local shops and bakeries in Ukraine as long as they can remain open. Most of the country’s west, including Lviv, has so far remained largely unscathed by the war, and most banks, restaurants and grocery stores remain open even as an influx of internally displaced people has started to strain resources.

There’s a growing sense that the war will soon come here, too. Sandbags were being piled around buildings in Lviv’s historic old city this week, and windows were being covered with metal sheets.

“The approach has to be very opportunistic and entrepreneurial, because we don’t know what the situation is going to look like in a week or a month or three months,” Mr. Turner said.

In addition to the Ukrainian train network, which is still largely functional, the WFP plans to employ what became known in Syria as the “elephant and mouse” approach. The tactic involves large trucks getting as close as they safely can to large cities, then offloading goods onto smaller, more manoeuvrable vehicles.

Mr. Turner said the WFP intends to advise the Russian military, via the UN, of the expected movements of its humanitarian convoys, which will also include medicines sent by the World Health Organization. It’s a system that he said largely worked in Syria, where the Russian air force has supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad in that country’s brutal civil war.

In September, 2016, a UN humanitarian convoy that was trying to reach a rebel-held area of Syria was attacked from the air, killing 20 people. Though U.S. officials initially accused Russia of intentionally bombing the convoy, a UN investigation later found the attack had been carried out by the Syrian air force. The attack has been called a war crime.


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