Modest Recovery in Syrian Agriculture Masks Ongoing and Intractable Problems

18 SEPTEMBER 2019
 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization predicted that Syrian wheat production would double this year. The report estimates that wheat production will reach 2.2 million tonnes in 2019, an increase from a 29-year low of 1.2 million tonnes produced last year.  Though this year’s crop marks an improvement in wheat production, it is still far short of the pre-war average of 4.1 million tonnes a year. After eight years of conflict, food security in Syria is precarious and estimates indicate that 6.5 million people are food insecure. A further 2.5 million are thought to be vulnerable to food insecurity.

Comment

Although the Syrian agricultural sector is among the most resilient sectors of the economy, it significantly declined over the course of the conflict. Before the war, Syria was able to export wheat and produced a wide variety of crops, including barley, legumes and fruit. Similarly, around 1.5 million hectares of farmland was under irrigation before 2011. Since then, irrigation structures and pumping stations have been destroyed, while electricity shortages and high fuel prices have also contributed indirectly to a reduction in irrigated land.

Shortages of farm machinery are also widespread, although the situation has slightly improved this year. Access to other inputs, such as seeds and fertiliser, remains poor. There were serious concerns that a seed shortage would damage this year’s crop production and farmers have been unable to import nitrogenous fertilisers, because of fears that it could be used for bomb-making.

While the state of Syrian agriculture has been poor for the last eight years, there are some signs of a modest recovery. The conflict is slowing (the situation in Idlib notwithstanding) and the Syrian state controls much of the country. The Syrian Government has begun to emphasise the importance of reconstruction in what it calls a ‘post-conflict period’ and has allocated funds to the reconstruction effort (due to weak government finances, however, this is a fraction of what is needed). Declining levels of conflict have had positive impacts on agriculture this year, which helped the increase in wheat production. The return of internally displaced persons has provided additional farm labour and improved security has meant more farmland is accessible. A number of trade routes, which were disrupted by the conflict, have been re-opened, improving access to markets.

Modest improvements in Syrian agriculture are certainly not unwelcome, but reaching pre-conflict levels of production will be difficult. Petrol prices remain high, due to Syria’s decreased capacity to produce oil. Originally Iranian imports helped manage the problem, but the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran has disrupted fuel supplies to Syria. Most of this oil is used to power irrigation pumps, tractors and generators, making lower fuel prices vital to the agricultural sector.

Reconstruction efforts have also been limited. Although some local rebuilding projects have been started, most government efforts have focussed on property and real estate, especially where those projects give financial rewards to businesses loyal to the regime. In other sectors, reconstruction has been minimal and often along sectarian lines – rubble clearance and building new infrastructure was given government priority in Christian rather than Sunni villages. UN programmes supporting reconstruction efforts do so only in government priority areas.

As the Syrian conflict slowly draws to a close, a better security situation will continue to support small improvements in agriculture. To be able to restore agricultural productivity to pre-war levels and fully support farmers’ livelihoods, however, Syria will need both enough funding to repair the damage from eight years of civil war and a government willing to invest in needs-based reconstruction. Neither of these scenarios seems likely in the near future.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.
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