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Anticipating a hungry winter

The Syrian finance minister has said withdrawing bread subsidies is a “red line”, but failing harvests and soaring international wheat prices may be forcing a re-think.
(Abigail Fielding-Smith/IRIN)

The fields in the fertile al Ghab plain stretching across eastern Syria would normally be full of crops at this time of year, but this summer some are lying fallow.

"The army has deployed in the fields, and there are checkpoints around our village," said Muhammad al-Ashab*, a farmer in al Madeeq Citadel. "Sometimes the soldiers let us pass, sometimes they don't."

Some farmers, he said, have not been able to plant anything. Others suffered losses as their crops withered, either because they could not access them regularly, or they were lacking the means necessary to attend to them.

The violent conflict in Syria appears to be hampering agriculture. Farmers are struggling with obstructions due to intermittent fighting as well as soaring prices of farming supplies and shortages of diesel. The fuel is needed not only for tractors and harvesters, but also for pumps to water the fields.

"Fertilizers and insecticides have become so expensive that people have had difficulties affording them," said al-Ashab*. "Diesel is hardly available, and if we find any, we pay three times as much as we used to."

As a result, the farmers in his village harvested only half of the usual amount of wheat this year. "Most families depend on farming, and now many are left with no income. We had to let go of all our workers on our farm because we couldn't pay them any more," he added.

Differing assessments

A somewhat contrasting picture is presented in a detailed USDA report on 12 June which says that wheat yields look "favourable" despite the conflict. This analysis said food security, especially in urban areas, is compromised more by a breakdown in distribution than a drop in production.

"The unknown element in the situation is how the rural community which is dispersed across the extent of the country's grain growing regions is coping, and whether the conflict will in any way affect their ability to successfully harvest and market the 2012 winter grain crop."

Meanwhile, influential French forecaster Strategie Grains, quoted by Reuters, said it had slashed its harvest estimate for Syria's 2012 crop for soft and durum wheat by 900,000 tons to 2.5 million tons. That compared with a harvest of 3.3 million tons in 2011.

"The main producer regions are very much at the centre of the civil war and although it is difficult to evaluate the impact this will have on the harvest, a significant disruption seems certain," the firm said in a May report.

''Livelihoods are at risk of collapse''

While the ongoing crisis may be preventing farmers from working, food prices have tripled in parts of seven provinces in Syria, according to a Humanitarian Bulletin published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) covering 6-19 July.

Livelihoods at risk

"There are whole groups of rural people, farmers, livestock herders and migrant agricultural workers whose livelihoods are at risk of collapse," said Jens Laerke, an OCHA spokesman in Geneva.

As the conflict escalates (the International Committee of the Red Cross last week said it was more and more resembling a non-international armed conflict) food insecurity is spreading throughout the country.

"The problem is big, it is acute, and it is growing", said Laerke. Some one million people have been displaced inside Syria, according to OCHA's Humanitarian Bulletin. The World Food Programme is currently providing food aid to half a million people in the country, and hopes to reach 850,000 next month.

"Agriculture is one of the most important industry sectors, making up 30 percent of Syria's GDP," said Samer Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist who used to work as an adviser to the government. "The uprising is spread all over Syria; all major areas of agriculture have been affected," he added. He reckons the wheat harvest will amount to only 1.9 million tons this year.

Before the uprising, Syria produced an average of four million tons annually and relied on imports to cover its need for 7-8 million tons.

With shops burnt or looted and transport roads blocked, basic food items have been difficult to obtain for months in protest hubs such as Homs or Hama. In Damascus, grocery stores were relatively well stocked till recently. But since rebel fighters infiltrated the capital last week, the surge of violence has also started triggering shortages: "Fighting was less heavy today, so many people ventured outside after more than a week and went to the market," said a young lawyer in the city centre, Ashraf al-Nasr.*

"Milk and yoghurt are not available in many places, and prices have skyrocketed, particularly for fresh vegetables. Cucumbers, for example, used to cost 35 lira, or even less. Now they are about 125 lira," said al-Nasr.

Crops burned

In many rural areas, however, severe problems of supply are approaching a critical stage. People in villages deemed to support the uprising have been disproportionately affected, as their crops have in some cases been burned, activists and farmers in different areas say.

"Some of our fields caught fire during the shelling. Some were torched by the soldiers as punishment because we shelter defectors," said Hamid Rasul,* a farmer from the village of Halfaya in Ghab plain. "I had planted wheat, but my fields were among those destroyed by the fire. I have lost everything, just before it was time to harvest."

The farmers' market in Halfaya is closed most of the time, he said. Many shops have been vandalized or looted, and people are sharing what food they have left. "It won't last long. In summer, we usually store potatoes and wheat for the winter. But now, we have nothing to store. We are anticipating hunger."

*not a real name


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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