Syria appears to be on the verge of an unprecedented food crisis during the war years. What makes matters worse is the possibility that this problem will become chronic and entrenched if solutions are not put forward that help in the recovery of the Syrian economy. The World Food Program announced last February that 12.4 million Syrians suffer from food insecurity, and that 60% of the population does not know what they will eat tomorrow, and that the number of food insecure people in the country increased in just one year to 4.5 million people. The WFP also revealed that 1.3 million Syrians face severe food insecurity and that an additional 1.8 million Syrians are at risk of becoming food insecure if things do not improve.
In War and in Famine
These alarming numbers are the result of many reasons. It goes without saying that the war and its aftermath have taken a heavy toll on the Syrian economy. Although the intensity of the fighting subsided and calm prevailed on most fronts, it turned out to be a mistake to believe that the most severe phase of the tragedy had become behind the Syrians. The current economic crisis and its huge repercussions on the nation indicate that the country is on the verge of a new phase that can be described as famine, which will not be less severe than war. These fears are driven by low precipitation this year, a dramatic drop in water levels on the Euphrates River and a sharp decline in the wheat harvest this year.
A decade of a fierce war, and a severe economic turndown in the past two years, led to a significant collapse in the purchasing power of the average citizen across Syria, especially in the areas controlled by the regime. This economic crunch has many and complex causes, including the devastating impact of the war, capital flight, economic sanctions on Syria and their collateral damage, in addition to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and the collapse of Lebanon’s economy, which has always been an outlet to circumvent Western sanctions. All these factors and others made the cost of simple necessities prohibitive for the majority of the population. For example, according to WFP statistics, a family of five needs 175,000 Syrian pounds to meet their food needs at a time when the minimum government wage is 47,000 Syrian pounds, and the highest is 80,000 Syrian pounds.
In addition to the collapse in purchasing power, there is a shortage of some strategic commodities essential for food security, such as wheat. After more than a month of a sharp drop in the level of the Euphrates River, due to unilateral Turkish measures and a severe drought, the productivity of a strategic crop such as wheat appears to be dangerously low, threatening the food security of the population in Syria in an unprecedented manner. The economic collapse, and the subsequent rise in fuel prices, and the decline in electrical power supplies, undermined farmers' ability to operate water pumps for irrigation. As for the collapse of the Syrian pound’s exchange rate against the dollar, it led to an increase in the cost of fertilizers and agricultural medicines, which weakened productivity and left the field open to plant diseases and harmful insects.
A Failed “Year of Wheat” Campaign
The Syrian regime launched the "Year of Wheat" campaign some time ago after it became aware of the imminent danger. However, current information and conditions indicate that the campaign has failed. Instead of producing one million tons of wheat, it seems that the actual production will be in the range of 400,000 tons as a maximum, in light of the fact that the drought has affected most of the Syrian governorates, not one or two governorates, as was the case in the past, according to the Syrian Minister of Agriculture. In sum, the drought led to the loss of about 90% of rain-fed crops, while irrigated crops were affected by the significant decrease in the level of the Euphrates River and its dam lakes.
Amidst a frantic competition between the Syrian regime on the one hand and the Kurdish Autonomous Administration, on the other hand, to buy the wheat harvest, even during the last season which was not dry, one could clearly conclude that the threat to food security has also affected those residing in regions controlled by the Syrian regime. Regime-controlled areas need about 200,000 tons of wheat every month, at a cost of $400,000. Based on these data, and on the fact that the Syrian regime does not have the necessary funding to import enough wheat, it seems that the bread crisis that the Syrians have seen a few months ago will return again, in a way that is likely to be more severe and for a longer period. It is likely that the crisis will prolong as many farmers express their desire to refrain from farming after they have suffered heavy losses this year or to switch to other less risky crops, such as nigella, coriander, and others, which are not considered essential for food security or for the daily food of the Syrians.
The Russian Way Out
In terms of solutions, the Syrian regime does not seem to have a way out of the crisis but to knock on the Russian door to import larger quantities of wheat to meet its local needs. Russia's ambassador in Damascus said that his country would provide Syria with one million tons of wheat until the end of the year. However, in light of the fact that the necessary funding is not available, it may be expected that other investment concessions will be made to the Russian side, such as those made previously.
It should be noted here, that despite the significant role of drought in the current crisis, a dry season every few years is something that can be overcome, as in the past if the Syrian economy was in good shape. However, the current extreme fragility of the economy due to the long years of war, the sanctions against the regime, the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon, were also reasons at the top of which drought sits.
Even without drought, the area of agricultural land in Syria has been declining year after year, for reasons related to the security situation in previous years, and the economic situation in recent years. This highlights the fundamental role played by the collapse of the economy in general in the decline in agricultural productivity. Accordingly, it can be concluded that any new shock to the already fragile Syrian economy will have a direct and immediate impact on the food security of the Syrians in a way that makes them more dependent on international aid and Russia.
EPC | 22 Sep 2021
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