Drought conditions threaten food security of Syria's nomadic livestock producers

Drought has almost wiped out range vegetation for sheep
FAO/20570/M. Marzot

In the Near East, the worst recorded drought in decades has hit Syria hard. A recent FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Syria paints a grim picture of the country's food situation and reports that the outlook is particularly grave for nomadic pastoralist families. According to the mission report, a large proportion of the nomadic herders are facing "financial ruin", with 4 700 households (over 30 000 people) seriously vulnerable to food shortages and in urgent need of food assistance.

The Mission found that rainfall in the country's key agricultural areas was 25 to nearly 70 percent below normal. With only a quarter of Syria's agricultural land under irrigation, this lack of rainfall has had a devastating effect on food and livestock production.

The country's barley crop, which is almost entirely dependant on rainfall, has been seriously affected. The report forecasts that Syria's barley harvest will be only 380 000 tonnes, less than half of last year's total and down 72 percent from the previous five year average. Reductions in wheat production are expected to be less severe, as 40 percent of Syria's wheat fields are irrigated. Nevertheless, the wheat harvest, estimated at 2.74 million tonnes, is one-third less than the previous year's crop and about 28 percent below average.

According to the report, Syria will be able to meet its wheat requirements through current production and existing stocks, but the country's barley requirements, estimated at just under 1.2 million tonnes, will have to be obtained through imports. The Syrian government, faced with economic slowdown largely the result of falling oil prices, can only afford to import 200 000 tonnes, leaving a shortfall of nearly one million tonnes. As part of an emergency programme, the government has permitted the private sector to import barley. However, traders have little financial incentive to import barley given the limited revenues of livestock producers, who desperately need feed to keep their herds alive.

Nomadic herders face dire situation in the Syrian steppe
The drought has created a dire situation for Syria's nomadic herders living in the Syrian steppe, or Badia, where only 33 mm of rain has fallen over the last year, compared with the usual 200 mm. The lack of rainfall has almost completely wiped out range vegetation, and with the decline in grain production and crop residues, there is widespread undernutrition and disease in the sheep population. The 1998/1999 mortality rates for mature ewes and lambs stand at 10 and 25 percent respectively, much higher than the usual rates of three to four percent. This has led to a significant loss in household incomes and many families have been forced to sell off their animals and other assets at highly depressed prices. Their level of debt is also increasing sharply due to additional feed expenses.

The report recommends that 23 000 tonnes of wheat flour be delivered to Syria during the next six months to assist the nearly 50 000 families at risk of food shortages and adds that further international assistance is needed to replenish the country's almost depleted National Fodder Fund.

Even with this assistance, Syria's nomadic livestock producers face a difficult future. The report points out that "even under an optimistic scenario where normal rainfall patterns resume this year, it will take most herders several seasons to recover from the effects of drought. Indeed, some may never be in a position to resume herding and repay loans." According to the report, "a reoccurrence of the drought again this year would be catastrophic for the nomadic population."

8 September 1999

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