Syria’s farming has been remarkably resilient after more than six years of civil war, but it is now time to help rebuild the country’s agricultural sector, a senior UN official has told EURACTIV.
“Often people would think that because of the war, agriculture would stop, that all the food would be imported, but actually about half the food is still being produced in Syria”, said Daniel Gustafson, Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) told EURACTIV.com in an interview.
“The fact that it is down to half of what it was before is a tragedy but nevertheless, it is amazing.”
“You still have two millions tons of wheat being produced, it’s incredible. And this, along with vegetables, poultry, and other things. On the whole, agriculture has been remarkably resilient in the face of the crisis”, the FAO official added.
Since the conflict began in March 2011, almost half a million people are estimated to have been killed and more than 11 million, about half of the population, are displaced either internally or as refugees.
With its Mediterranean climate and location in the ancient Fertile Crescent, Syria was once the region’s only self-sufficient country in food production. Before the civil war, the country’s main agricultural exports included wheat, barley, cotton, sugar, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, apples, olive oil, sheep, cattle, poultry, and eggs.
In 2010, 46% of the population’s livelihoods were connected in some way to agriculture.
The agricultural sector represented 18% of GDP. “That may not sound like a lot at first glance, but it is in fact very high”, Daniel Gustafson remarked.
Both sides have been using food as a weapon, initiating starvation sieges and scorched earth policies. Open warfare has put farmland off-limits, and the fear of being shot prevent shepherds from grazing their flocks on roadsides. Less land has been cultivated due to power cuts and damages to irrigation canals.
Syrian agriculture losses reach $16 billion
Gustafson insists that the impact of the Syrian conflict on agriculture is a story that does not get enough attention.
“When you think of conflicts, you tend to think of cities but the actual destruction of the rural economy is just unrelenting”, he said.
“You can’t get seeds, you can’t get fertilizer, you can’t sell products, you can’t get parts you need for your machines. The war has just been devastating. The losses are terrific, they amount to $16 billion”, added Gustafson.
“The wheat production went from four million tons to two million tons and about half the animals of the livestock were lost.”
He cited a report published by its organization in April 2017 which shows that nine out of ten families now spend more than half of their income on food. That is up from 25% before the war, due to soaring food prices and the decline in farming income, the analysis says.
Furthermore, seed production is down enormously, he added.
“There used to be a governmental seed production which is now down to a fraction of what it was.
Rebuilding the agricultural sector
Now is the time to start rebuilding the agricultural sector in Syria, Daniel Gustafson said.
“If we can help farmers on ways to protect agricultural livelihoods like poultries or seeds and thus maintaining their production so that they do not have to leave, that would be a big thing”, he added.
“It is a key issue. Rebuilding the agricultural sector would cost between $10.7 and $17.1 billion over the first three years, depending on how the conflict develops”, he said.
Creating a more resilient agriculture sector in Syria will need the right technology and resource management, as well as financial support, “and that represents a big risk”, he added.
Water management is crucial, which means also taking into consideration what it means for the nearby countries.
“We face excessive groundwater depletion and inefficient water use. That was the case before the war, it is still the case and it will be the case when peace returns”, Gustafson observed.
The vaccination of animals is also of crucial importance, he underlined. “We are talking about the immunity for the herd, not only for one animal because if you do it sporadically, you will develop resistance to bacteria. It has to be done in a coordinated fashion”.