Poor rains, supply bottlenecks exacerbate food security woes in war-torn Syria, UN warns

Widows in Qamishly, Syria, speak with a WFP programme officer at a food distribution centre. The majority of the women at the centre have been displaced multiple times because of conflict, often fleeing with nothing. Photo: WFP/Hiba Anty

15 November 2016 – Reeling under the effects of a seemingly unending conflict, Syrian farmers may have “no other option” but to abandon food production, with grave consequences on food availability in the whole country, the United Nations agencies dealing with food security and emergency food relief warned today.

Following their latest joint Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) said that after five years of conflict, many farmers in the country have “lost the ability to cope”, and rising prices and scarcity of essential inputs such as fertilizers and seeds have made it ever more difficult for them to maintain their livelihoods and feed the war-torn country.

“Agriculture was the main source of livelihood for rural households before the crisis and it is still producing to a certain extent, but it is stretched to the maximum and farmers have largely exhausted their capacity to cope,” said Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa.

Underlining the severity of the situation, WFP Regional Director for the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and East Europe, Muhannad Hadi added: “The food security situation of millions of people inside Syria continues to deteriorate with more than seven million people classified as food insecure across the country having exhausted their life savings and no longer able to put food on the table for their families.”

According to the two UN agencies, the area planted to cereals in the 2015-2016 cropping season is the smallest ever. Farmers planted an estimated 900,000 hectares of wheat in the last year, compared to 1.5 million hectares planted before the crisis.

Production, meanwhile, shows an even more drastic decline, from an average 3.4 million metric tonnes of wheat harvested before the war to 1.5 million metric tonnes this year – a decrease of 55 per cent.

In addition to the hardships caused by disrupted trade and markets and lack of availability of quality seeds, fertilizers, machinery and fuel, poor rainfall and the destruction of irrigation infrastructure have made matters worse for agriculturists trying to continue to produce food under adverse circumstances.

In some instances, farmers have also had to switch from cultivating valuable and nutritious crops to hardier but less nutritious ones such as barley, the agencies noted.

Livestock producers also feeling the impact

WFP and FAO further said that livestock producers are equally feeling the effects of the crisis, noting: “With the upkeep of their animals becoming ever more difficult and costly, many herding families have been forced to sell or slaughter their sheep, goats and poultry.”

The fighting and resulting insecurity have also limited access to grazing land and water sources. Furthermore, while animal feed has become unaffordable for many pastoralists, stocks of animal vaccines and routine drugs are also running out.

“As a result, Syria – once an exporter in livestock – has seen its herds and flock shrink significantly since the beginning of the crisis. Today, there are 30 per cent fewer cattle, 40 per cent fewer sheep and goats, and a staggering 60 per cent less poultry – traditionally the most affordable source of animal protein in the country,” FAO and WFP added.

Price rise and trade problems

The two UN agencies also reported that the rising inflation and depreciation of the Syrian pound (from 395 to 530 per US Dollar) have further limited Syrians’ ability to purchase essential imports and pushing up prices resulting in heavy losses to farmers.

Additionally, transportation bottlenecks and fragmented markets have resulted in surplus supply in north-east Syria while its western parts largely rely on imports.

“Urgent support is therefore also needed to connect in-need communities with surpluses in other parts of the country, including by purchasing local stocks for food assistance deliveries,” the agencies noted.

Providing critical response

Because the conflict has greatly reduced the Government’s capacity provide seeds and related other necessities as well as displaced close to 11 million people, with more than 4.8 million fleeing to neighbouring countries, both FAO and WFP been helping farmers continue to grow food and raise livestock as well as provide food assistance to the millions of vulnerable Syrians.

According to the latest household surveys, some 9.4 million people across Syria are in need of assistance – some 716,000 more than in September 2015.

In response to this dire situation, FAO has, so far in 2016, supported over 500,000 people with distributions of cereal and vegetable seeds, live poultry for backyard farming, animal feed and vaccination campaigns.

WFP also has been providing food assistance to more than four million vulnerable Syrians every month inside Syria. About 30 per cent of this relief is delivered to besieged and hard-to-reach areas across the country through cross-border and cross-line deliveries.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Liam Neeson praises strength of Syrian refugee children in Jordan

Related Stories