BEIRUT : The UN refugee agency is to cut food aid to more than a quarter of Syrian refugees in Lebanon starting next month, partly as a result of a massive shortfall in funding.

From October, UNHCR will move to “targeted assistance,” as it struggles to assist a refugee population of at least 720,000 people in Lebanon.

“We will have to switch to targeted assistance and cut some of our direct funding in part because of the shortfall in funds,” UNHCR spokeswoman Roberta Russo told AFP.

“Our campaign sought $1.7 billion for Lebanon, and that is only 27 percent funded,” she added, saying aid agencies were making “difficult decisions” every day about how to use limited aid money.

Russo said a transition from blanket assistance of all refugees to a focus on the most vulnerable was not unusual when dealing with such a crisis. “At the beginning of the emergency it is normal to give blanket assistance,” she said.

“Then once you have a better knowledge of the population, as we do now, we are better able to distinguish between those who are able to survive without assistance and those who really cannot.”

But she acknowledged that the decision to cut food assistance, which will affect around 200,000 refugees - 28 percent of those in Lebanon - was also driven by the agency’s lack of funds.

“If we don’t have an increase in funding we will not be able to meet, in general, even the needs of population we have now, not to mention the additional population that could arrive if the fighting intensifies.”

There have been fears that the exodus from Syria could pick up if the international community pursues proposed military action against the regime in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21.

A leaflet explaining the decision to cut back assistance warns refugees that “resources are insufficient to assist everybody.”

“Therefore, assistance will be limited to those most in need.”

Russo stressed that 72 percent of registered refugees will continue to receive food aid, and those considered most vulnerable will also receive health and education services.

The cutbacks reflect the ongoing struggle of the humanitarian aid community to dealing with a flood of Syrian refugees.

Lebanon’s government estimates one million Syrians are now taking shelter in the country, which had a population of just four million before the conflict in its larger neighbour began.

The United Nations said earlier this week that more than two million Syrians have fled the conflict that began in March 2011, with an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Another 4.2 million Syrians are internally displaced, according to the United Nations.