Drought conditions combined with continued conflict are adding pressure to an already dire food security situation in Syria, raising the prospects of further severe reductions in wheat and barley production in key areas, along with increased food import needs and higher prices for 2014. This was stated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Wheat and barley are the country’s two most important food crops. The total area planted with wheat is estimated to have declined by about 15 per cent vis-a-vis the average of recent years, and FAO has put wheat production at an expected 1.97 million tonne for 2014 (which is 52 per cent below the average for the 2001-2011 period).
FAO released the food security outlook for Syria through its global information and early warning system (GIEWS), as farmers prepared to harvest winter grains over the next few weeks. Syria’s brief was based on satellite imagery, field reports and information provided by its agriculture and agrarian reform ministry (MAAR) and other sources.
It showed that the rainfall picked up in March and early April, as winter crops reached maturity, but an exceptionally dry January-February period had already affected crops in the crucial establishment and growth phases.
Meanwhile, between October 2013 and the end of April 2014, significant rainfall deficits, ranging from 55 to 85 per cent in some areas, kept cumulative rainfall well below the seasonal average, weighing heavily on crop yield projections and rangeland conditions across vast agricultural areas in the northwest of the country.
The situation in Quonaitra, Al-Ghab, Tartus, Lattakia, and Idleb remained at the drought warning phase, with cumulative rains below 50 per cent of the seasonal average.
The changing weather conditions, coupled with the impact of the conflict, are expected to increase the gap between local production and domestic food requirements this year, resulting in increased food price inflation, loss of employment and disruptions in markets and trade activities.
“The pressure continues to mount on displaced families and other vulnerable farmers, threatening long-term consequences for their food security, health and economic survival,” Eriko Hibi, FAO’s representative in Syria said.
The poor weather conditions were exacerbating an already precarious food security situation, brought on primarily by conflict and the resulting devastation of livelihoods.
Agricultural production has suffered due to the declining availability and higher prices of agricultural inputs; damage and destruction of irrigation infrastructure and other farm equipment, including storage facilities; the disruption of markets; the abandonment of agricultural lands; power shortages and the lack of other services and resources.
Crop yield projections
FAO’s yield projections were significantly lower than government estimates, but both sets of figures showed an expected sharp decline in output.
The United Nations agency’s yield calculations, based on remote-sensing data and the agricultural stress index (ASI), indicated a yield level at 1.5 tonne/hectare, much lower than the normal average level of 2.4 tonne/hectare used in other estimates.
Food price inflation
Food shortages pushed up import requirements, and the prices of cereals and other foods climbed by 108 per cent in November 2013, compared with the year before.
Helping families in need
“FAO and its partners have been able to support families in the agriculture sector to protect their livelihoods. This can provide desperately needed food and income, but we need to work with farmers, the government and all stakeholders to do much more, and to act even more quickly,” FAO’s Hibi said.
The agency distributed wheat and barley seeds to nearly 29,000 farming families in Idleb, Aleppo, Al Hasakeh and Hama governorates to support the 2013-14 winter cropping season.
The UN agency was also gearing up for next winter’s cereal production, with the aim of helping at least 50,000 vulnerable small-scale farming households (approximately 3,50,000 people) living in crisis-affected areas to cultivate at least one hectare of land each. This would enable families to meet their food needs for 12 months and produce a surplus to sell on the market.
The livestock sector was also severely hit, with a huge impact on agriculture and livelihoods. Thus, livestock feed and veterinary assistance were also being provided, along with support for backyard poultry and vegetable production, to increase food availability and enhance nutrition.
As of early-May 2014, almost 2.7 million refugees were registered in the region covering Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The number of internally-displaced persons is estimated at 6.5 million.
Under the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) for 2014, FAO is appealing for $43.6 million to assist 1,35,000 households (about 9,45,000 people), to help them produce their own food (cereal and livestock), diversify their livelihoods and improve their prospects for the future.
Insufficient support to the agriculture sector could worsen the already-fragile food security situation, not only in Syria but also in neighbouring countries.