25 Jun, 2019

The Newest Syrian Crisis is Food

by Alessandro Balduzzi

After more than eight years of conflict, Syrians face a new challenge – producing enough food to feed themselves. The impending disaster could play an important role in generating a new wave of migration, even as the war nears an end.

Warfare, destruction of infrastructure, drought, scarcity in fuel supply, high prices for seeds and fertilizers, and forced displacement of farmers has created a catastrophe. According to UN estimates, Syria has lost some 40 percent of its crops since 2011, when civil war began. The Syrian government says that the total surface of wheat fields fell from around 1.1 million hectares last year to around 760,000 this year. About half of Syrians from food insecurity.

Before 2011, Syria produced enough wheat to food itself and even export. Wheat fields totaled 1.7 million hectares in 2007 and more than four million tons of wheat were produced every year – an average of around 2.4 tons per hectare. Last year, only 1.2 million tons of wheat were produced per hectare, according to FAO.

Abundant rainfalls this year raised hopes of a rich harvest. Some Syrian regions expected to harvest an average of six tons of wheat per hectare this year.

This didn’t happen. What went wrong?

Widespread fires in several Syrian region destroyed many fields. Areas east of the Euphrates –long regarded as Syria’s “granary thanks to favorable rainfalls and the presence of rivers, such as the Euphrates and its Balikh and Khabur tributaries – were hit hard, with around 25 thousand hectares of wheat and barley fields destroyed.

The fires appear man-made and politically motivated. The rebel Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) controlled most of the territory that went up in a blaze. By destroying the fields and crops, the government demonstrates the SDF’s inability of guaranteeing the security of citizens. Elsewhere, the so-called Islamic State claimed some of the fires in order to further destabilize Kurdish authority in Eastern Syria.

Beyond fires, the war caused direct destruction. When government forces launched an attack on the opposition’s last strongholds in the Southern Idlib and Northern Hama governorates on April 26, airstrikes demolished around 200 hectares of cultivated fields in Idlib and more than 450 hectares in Hama. Local sources claim that farmers have suffered financial losses of around one billion and 65 million Syrian pounds, the equivalent of more than 1.8 million US dollars.

In addition to crops being devastated and agricultural equipment being damaged by airstrikes, massive displacement of the population reduce harvests. Many farmers have abandoned their fields after being forced to leave due to security concerns and lack of safe access to farms. Others have decided to harvest before their crops reach maturity or can harvest only when fields are overripe.

This drastic decrease in production is expected to trigger a price increase and make food supply even more difficult. The consequences will be humanitarian - and a risk of renewed migration. Massive inflows of refugees have poured into Idlib as Damascus conquers other parts of Syria.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 1.3 million internally displaced people are currently settled in Idlib OCHA recorded a massive flow of 270,000 individuals displaced from northern Hama and southern Idlib governorates in the single month of May.

The destruction of farmland and agriculture is expected to have short and long-term effects. Farmers will lose their source of income; food prices are expected to increase despite the government’s and international agencies’ efforts to support Syrian rural areas.

The damage to cultivable land will affect productivity for years to come, disrupting food production cycles. A bitter paradox in light of the fact that a species of grass imported from war-torn Syria could save US wheat from climate menace.