Time to start fighting Syria’s chronic food insecurity

Time to start fighting Syria’s chronic food insecurity

Many Syrians inside the country and refugees abroad remain in immediate need of direct food aid. (AFP)

As the Syrian civil war enters a new phase that may allow for some increased stability in parts of the country, there are opportunities to start addressing Syria’s massive food insecurity problem and its broader impacts on the Middle East.

Before 2011, Syria was an exporter of wheat and one of the region’s largest agricultural producers. It was also a major transit area for agricultural trade, with goods arriving from Europe, Turkey and Lebanon and transiting through Syria to Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf.

The war changed all of that. Today, “almost 80 percent of the households across the country are struggling to cope with the lack of food or money to buy it,” according to the World Food Programme. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that 5.7 million people in Syria are “severely food insecure.”

Some of the food insecurity is attributable to the effects of severe drought — a factor that contributed to the start of the civil war and continued to damage agricultural production well into it. However, the civil war in Syria and the effects of Daesh occupation of land in Syria and Iraq have had direct, negative impacts on agriculture. Conflict displaced farmers, leaving large areas of land uncultivated. Due to inflation and poverty, the farmers who remained or have returned often cannot afford tools and essential agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizer.

There have been extensive livestock losses, caused by direct deaths from conflict, the spread of disease due to lack of veterinary care, and a lack of food and clean water for livestock. Also, some desperate farming families were forced to eat their livestock — necessary to survive in the short term but destroying key assets for the long term. There also are multiple stories of Daesh forces stealing livestock from farmers.

The war caused extensive damage to the infrastructure necessary for agricultural production and trade. In particular, there has been damage to irrigation canals and water infrastructure. Damaged roads and electricity shortages are additional problems.

The Syrian regime imposed sieges on several key urban areas at different points in the war — including Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Daraya — causing starvation and widespread malnourishment.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Another driver of food insecurity in Syria was the use of hunger as a tool of war. Notably, the Syrian regime imposed sieges on several key urban areas at different points in the war — including Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Daraya — causing starvation and widespread malnourishment. Daesh also used the same approach, such as with its siege of Deir Ezzor.

Extended malnourishment will have long-term effects on Syrian society. Malnourishment hurts everyone it affects, but it is especially terrible for babies and children under five years old, who may never recover from the damage it causes at the critical stages of early development. Lack of food also drove some Syrians to leave their homes or join militias or extremist groups.

Beyond the direct impacts of hunger, the damage to Syria’s agricultural sector has increased unemployment and made it harder for refugees and internally displaced people to consider returning to their homes.

The war also had wider effects on food security and availability throughout the broader Middle East. It has disrupted major agricultural trade routes for much of the region thanks to the closure of border crossings with Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Some of these remain closed or have reopened only recently. For example, the Nassib crossing with Jordan reopened in October, and the Oncupinar border gate with Turkey reportedly reopenedin March. There have been reports that the crossing between Iraq and Syria might reopen soon.

New supply routes were established during the war, such as moving agricultural products via air or sea. While some businesses benefited from the new supply routes, the overall impact has been largely negative, with increased costs for businesses and consumers. Stabilizing Syria and renewing its role as a transit country for trade would benefit Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in particular and have positive effects for other regional exporters and importers.

Assertions that the Syrian civil war is over are likely premature. Conflict continues in parts of the country, and the risk of renewed warfare or generalized instability is high. Many Syrians inside the country and refugees abroad remain in immediate need of direct food aid, which must be the priority.

However, in parts of the country, it is time to consider medium and long-term solutions. These include helping farmers access agricultural inputs, especially for small-scale farming at first. Assisting families with raising small-scale livestock could help address hunger as well as provide initial economic assistance. Aid agencies are already involved in providing such assistance. There is also a need to help farming families return to their homes and fields, though this requires a level of stability and respect for pre-war property rights that could be difficult to achieve.

In the longer term, Syria will require extensive repair to its agricultural and trade infrastructure, including repairing irrigation systems and roads. Such long-term rebuilding could breathe new life into Syria’s agricultural production, with benefits for Syrians and the broader Middle East. However, this will require significant amounts of foreign aid and investment, which raises questions about how that might benefit the Assad regime and whether much of the money would be siphoned off by corruption.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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