Despite the threat of COVID-19, FAO’s work in Syria carries on – helping farmers grow food and get back on their feet

Q&A with Mike Robson, FAO Representative in Syria

In this interview, we speak with Mike Robson, FAO Representative in Syria about the COVID-19 pandemic and what it could mean for a country such as Syria, which is on a long road to recovery after nine years of crisis.

Syria has been affected by political turmoil and extreme instability since 2011. What is the situation like now, especially for rural communities?

Syria was one of the ten countries hardest hit by acute food insecurity in 2019, with at least 35 percent of its population in food crisis.

Despite this, the people of Syria are resilient - even at the height of the crisis, farmers continued to grow wheat, the country's main crop.

This year there have been some signs of optimism and a return to normality. Peace has been restored to many parts of the country, and rains have been good so far. Farmers were able to plant 70 percent of the land allocated for cereal production.

However, for a significant number - many who fled their villages due to the conflict - the infrastructural damage, for example, to irrigation systems, and the loss of other basic services have continued to limit their option to return home. This is particularly true in parts of eastern Syria. Also, those who were able to return have lacked the seeds and inputs needed to grow food, while the majority of tractors or pumping equipment have been stolen, looted or vandalized. 

Among our various programmes, FAO has stepped in to provide seeds to almost 15 000 families this year, targeting the most vulnerable such as former internally displaced people, allowing each family to plant a hectare of wheat - half of which is enough for an average family's needs for one year - and to sell the surplus. But our experience on the ground in North East Hama, in western-central Syria, showed us that many more families were in need. For example, in a village where we helped 200 families - the most vulnerable - it was evident that all 3 000 families needed assistance.

Elsewhere, in Deir-ez-Zor, close to the border with Iraq, where we are restoring irrigation systems to provide water for around 5 000 households, village leaders stressed that agricultural development and or recovery programmes are urgently needed to support efforts to build peace and social stability; otherwise, they were worried about what would happen to young people in rural areas who couldn't make a living from farming.

How could the pandemic make an already difficult situation even harder? Who are most at risk?

So far we have few confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Syria - though few tests are being carried out - but the risk factors are high, and the country's medical infrastructure would struggle to cope with a large outbreak.

An even bigger concern is the impact of prolonged periods of lockdown on the economy and on the already precarious food security and livelihoods of millions of people.  The pandemic is like a coming storm for the people of Syria.

The country is currently operating a 6 pm to 6 am curfew and movement restrictions are in place while public spaces have been closed for the past month. Those working in the service sector or on daily wages are really suffering right now, and there is already anecdotal evidence of extreme hardship in both urban and rural areas. 

We, at FAO, are mainly concerned about how the restrictions will impact on agriculture, and food availability. We are already seeing a rise in input prices, whether due to import difficulties or opportunism on the part of the traders. For example, pesticide prices recorded a 100 percent increase in Hama in recent weeks. The price of a pack of tomato seeds went up from $25 to $31 in the last two weeks in Homs.

Also, our World Food Programme colleagues have been tracking food prices over the past month and saw a rise of 21 percent in the cost of the standard monthly food basket, basically what a household would buy on average per month, in March alone.

Equally, small livestock keepers cannot take their animals to graze, or buy feed. The markets where they would sell their animals are closed or operate under restrictions. Poultry businesses have also been hit by the high cost of imported feed and a collapse in demand from restaurants.

Basically, the livelihoods of all of the country's approximately 1.2 million farming families are affected in some way or another by the efforts to control COVID-19, though the impact is felt differently across the country.

What do vulnerable communities need most now in the face of the pandemic's threats? 

The first priority is to provide options so people can maintain their livelihoods and remain self-sufficient. And we need to reinforce key public health messages within our programmes. There is also an urgent need to provide farmers with seeds for planting, now for the summer crops and for the coming winter crops and vegetables, and feed for their animals.

Is FAO able to continue its work under the circumstances? And if so, what are some of the things you and your team are doing differently?

As an office, FAO Syria moved quickly to working from home, but we have managed to keep key elements of the programme running so far. 

For example, we are helping farmers build so-called "low tunnels" to produce vegetable seedlings  or to repair and or build irrigation systems for their farming land. The low tunnel vegetable seedling project started in March, and this is the first time this approach to producing seedlings has been used at scale in the country. Each low tunnel of 2 x 10 metres can produce enough seedlings for vegetables such as tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers and eggplant for planting by ten households. The nurseries use sprinkle irrigation, which means less water being used. We estimate that each farmer will earn an additional income from vegetable production of around  $1 000 per year. This season, the low tunnel work will benefit 700 farmers directly while providing good quality vegetable seedlings to up to 7 000, with plans to scale up considerably over the next one to two years.  

While carrying out these activities, all people are practising physical distancing and, if needed, wearing masks.

We have also swapped classroom-based training with training carried out outdoors in smaller groups. We are using WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages to speak to and share information - via video, for example - with people in our seed producer groups and our entrepreneurship programmes.  

How are these new initiatives working? Will they be continued post COVID-19?

We are moving quickly to become a more digital FAO Syria! As well as beating the virus, this will reduce our travel costs and our carbon footprint. I am committed to carrying forward the best of these innovations in the future, though not all technologies work as well in Syria as in other countries; we only just managed to run our first zoom meeting with some help from our colleagues in the regional office and headquarters.

What are some of the main challenges that FAO is facing now?

The biggest challenge is to ensure funding for our programmes right now.

So far, donors have been very understanding of the constraints we are working with now, and our core supporters understand the relevance of our work, especially during COVID-19.

You have been in Syria since July 2018, and have worked in other countries where life is particularly difficult. How is the current situation different?

The major difference right now is the movement restrictions imposed in the last months to halt the spread of COVID-19. However, Syria is not alone in this. 

Here in Damascus, our international staff live with other United Nations colleagues in one hotel. To help them better cope with the current circumstances, we managed to buy a tennis table just before the lockdown started. It is a great stress buster at the end of the day, and can be played in a safe way - whilst keeping distance.  Mahmoud, our Egyptian entrepreneurship specialist, has been a great coach.

Photo: ©FAO/Sheam Kaheel
An FAO partner training farmers in how to set up low tunnel vegetable seedling nurseries in Hama.