Addressing the Growing Hunger Crisis in Syria
The Path Forward is a CSIS Humanitarian Agenda series of reflections from humanitarian organizations on the challenges in food security, disrupted health systems, humanitarian access, civilian protection, and, ultimately, recovery for the Syrian people.
Syrians today are in greater need of stable sources of food than at any other point in the 10-year conflict. In 2020, the number of people classified as food insecure by the World Food Programme reached a record high of 9.3 million. The price of available food has escalated dramatically, and Syria’s agricultural sector struggles to produce enough to meet the population’s needs. The agricultural sector—historically one of the pillars of the Syrian economy—has deteriorated significantly as a result of conflict and severe economic crisis. While urgent investments are necessary to feed Syrian families today, donors should also work to improve agricultural production for the long-term resilience of vulnerable communities.
Prior to 2011, Syrians were able to grow many key staples, including wheat, barley, and legumes, as well as raise livestock such as Awassi sheep. In 2011, 20 percent of the Syrian labor force worked in the agricultural sector, which accounted for 14 percent of Syria’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). Before the conflict, the Syrian government controlled the production of livestock products and strategic crops, dividing the country into five agro-climatic regions to maximize crop output. Government departments were closely involved in the entire process, administering loans and subsidizing production inputs, providing agriculture extension services, and ultimately purchasing crops from farmers at preferential prices. This subsidy-based process was far from perfect, but in the short-term, Syria was able to meet most of its domestic food needs. In the lead up to the war, socioeconomic conditions in rural areas declined due to a combination of factors, including subsidy cuts, poor long-term groundwater management, and a major drought in 2008–2009. As the economic hardship worsened, many farmers who lost harvests moved into urban areas, increasing discontent among the Syrian population.
Ten years of fighting have forced even more farmers to abandon their land. Even when farmers are able to plant their fields, rapidly changing frontlines limit their ability to harvest crops at the end of the season. Vital infrastructure—particularly irrigation canals, dams, and water pipes—has been damaged due to fighting or neglected due to displacement. The government-run agricultural system is absent in areas outside of government control, leaving a void in agricultural input and extension services as well as a lack of quality-verified seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. The impacts of climate change and poor water management have further reduced crop yields. If not addressed, climate change will continue to threaten Syria’s future progress.
These factors, coupled with broader economic collapse in Syria and the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on supply chains and business operations, have pushed food prices too high for most families to afford. For example, the national average price for a food basket has increased 251 percent since November 2019. As a result, people have widely resorted to negative coping mechanisms such as relying on less expensive foods, purchasing on extended credit, limiting portion sizes, and restricting adult consumption to ensure small children eat. Almost half of all households do not consume any iron-rich foods, exposing pregnant and lactating women and children under two to nutritional deficiencies.
In the long-term, a political solution to the conflict is necessary to stem the violence and promote economic stability. In the meantime, the Biden administration can take immediate steps to address the root causes of food insecurity.
Increase funding for programs that integrate emergency and early-recovery interventions.
An integrated livelihoods and food security program can provide agricultural inputs to farmers while ensuring the immediate food needs of the most vulnerable are met by improving purchasing power through cash transfers. Such programming supports emergency daily needs while also providing the skills and resources necessary for long-term resilience to conflict and climate shocks.
Support programs to strengthen local agricultural market systems.
Support should be provided to productive value chains to ensure agricultural interventions fit into the broader agricultural industry throughout Syria. An agricultural system analysis can uncover the principal constraints to competitiveness, connectivity, and inclusivity in a particular sector—be it olives, livestock, or wheat—and ensure that agricultural interventions are designed to incorporate solutions. Interventions should also support more inclusive markets, a key precursor for sustainability of the agricultural sector.
Address systemic challenges to increase and improve agricultural output.
Syrian farmers in the northwest and northeast have limited access to high-quality seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides and no access to agricultural extension services. Moreover, damaged irrigation infrastructure and degraded grazing land have limited food production. Donors should support local agricultural extension programs and strengthen emerging private sector actors to improve the quality and distribution of agricultural inputs. Additionally, vital agricultural infrastructure such as canals, surface dams, and public pastures should be rehabilitated in areas where local authorities allow for this work to be done in a principled manner, based on a nuanced and inclusive understanding of community needs.
Focus on climate smart programming.
The impact of climate change in Syria has been amplified by poor water management and destruction from a decade of conflict. Water scarcity will become an increasing problem across Syria if immediate action is not taken, negatively impacting food production and increasing food insecurity. Donors should invest in interventions that increase productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such interventions include support for alternative energy sources and water conservation activities, climate information services, and technological solutions to adapt to future droughts.
While a political settlement remains elusive, there are steps that can be taken to alleviate the life-threatening food security crisis. As the new administration begins its term, it should increase the effectiveness of the aid response to reduce hunger now and set the stage for long-term recovery—millions are counting on it.
Ali* (pseudonym) is a staff member at Mercy Corps Syria. Mohamad* (pseudonym) is a staff member at Mercy Corps Syria. Kari Reid is director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps.
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