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Syria: Better rains improve wheat production, but food security situation remains bleak

Price of bread has increased by up to 87 percent over the past year

Photo: ©FAO/Tahseen Ayyash
Once a major contributor to Syria’s domestic economy and external trade, the livestock sector is gravely affected by the conflict.

23 July 2015, Rome - Syria's food production  has increased this year mainly due to favourable rains, but it remains way below its pre-crisis levels as the ongoing conflict continues to push more people into hunger and poverty, according to a report published today by two UN agencies.

The 2015 wheat crop is expected to be better than the 2014 drought stricken harvest, but will not lead to significant improvements in the overall household food security situation, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) said in their report.

In total, some 9.8 million people in Syria are estimated to be food insecure, with 6.8 million of these severely food insecure - a level of need that requires external food assistance. Since January this year alone, more than half a million people have been displaced.

The conflict continues to seriously disrupt agricultural activities and food markets, according to the FAO-WFP report.

"Although Syria's current harvest is better than expected due to abundant rains, the country's agriculture sector remains decimated by the conflict. Urgent donor support is needed to ensure farmers can meet the upcoming cereal planting season, beginning in October," said Dominique Burgeon, Director of FAO's Emergency and Rehabilitation Division.

Agricultural production continues to be impeded by shortages of fuel, farm labour and agricultural inputs, including seeds and fertilizers; high input costs and unreliable quality; as well as damages to irrigation systems and farming equipment. These factors are compounding the food insecurity situation in the country.

"The evidence is clear: almost five years of conflict have destroyed the Syrian economy and the people's ability to buy essentials like the food they need to survive," said Arif Husain, WFP's Chief Economist. "We worry about the continued displacement and its impact particularly on women and children. The risk of irreversible damage to the children is real, with tragic future consequences if this conflict lasts much longer." He added: "We urge the international community to continue supporting the vital peace and relief efforts until peace is found."

Wheat production in 2015, estimated at 2.445 million tonnes, is expected to be better than the very poor harvest of 2014 and slightly better than that of 2013. Yet, it is still 40 percent lower than pre-conflict production levels. The country faces a wheat deficit of about 800 000 tonnes out of its yearly requirement of nearly 5 million tonnes, the report said.

The area planted to cereals was constrained by insecurity and the estimated harvested wheat area is the smallest since the 1960s, the reports notes.

Livestock production is also gravely affected by the conflict. The sector, once a major contributor to Syria's domestic economy and to its external trade, has seen reductions of 30 per cent in cattle and 40 per cent in sheep and goats, while poultry, usually the most affordable source of protein in people's diets has shrunk by 50 per cent. The report also noted that the country's veterinary service is rapidly running out of vaccines and routine drugs.

Price of bread has skyrocketed  

After being relatively stable in 2014, food prices began increasing sharply in early 2015 in the wake of lower government subsidies and exchange rate depreciation. Critically, the price of bread has spiraled in the past year, increasing by up to 87 per cent in public bakeries.

The share of household expenditure on food has increased tremendously since the beginning of the crisis, at the expense of meeting other critical needs. Families were found to be spending more than half of their incomes on food and in some places such as Sweida, Aleppo and Hama this share is higher and has jumped to almost 80 percent in Dara'a, one of the areas which have witnessed some of the most intensive fighting.

A majority of people were found consuming a "poor" or "borderline" diet. Dietary diversity is somewhat better in the north-western governorates of Idlib, Tartous and Lattakia, where households seem to have some access to high quality and vitamin rich proteins and vegetables. People in the conflict-affected governorates of Deir Ezzor, Hassakeh, Aleppo and Hama have the worse food consumption indicators.

Market fragmentation

Syria's producers, transporters and traders are facing extremely high transaction costs and risks due to further increased insecurity in arterial highways. As a result, movement of agricultural produce from production areas to main markets face multiple bottlenecks, leading to increased wastage of fruit and vegetables and hampering transfers of wheat surpluses from the north east to the food deficit areas of the west of the country

Recommendations

While an end to the conflict remains the main precondition for ensuring that people in Syria have adequate access to food, the FAO-WFP report provides a set of recommendations aimed at improving the current food security situation, stressing the need for food assistance to the besieged and violence afflicted areas of the country.

It recommends assistance to boost wheat and other cereal production through the provision of good quality seeds, fertilizers and other agricultural inputs.

In order to strengthen the resiliance of affected communities, it further recommends supporting the establishment of village-based private seed production and distribution centres, promoting backyard vegetable and poultry production through distribution of improved seeds and chicks, as well as providing livestock vaccines and veterinary drugs.

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