Severe Drought Highlights Syria’s Struggle With Food Insecurity

In the midst of the ongoing civil war, Syria is currently suffering from a severe drought, placing the country’s food supply in jeopardy. According to Syrian Agriculture Minister Mohammad Hassan Qatana, the country has been seeing higher temperatures and a drastic decrease in rainfall this year, with many provinces experiencing 50% to 70% less than usual. While Syria has experienced severe drought in recent years, Qatana explains that the current one has spread across the entire country. This is in contrast to previous droughts that were confined to a only a few provinces. 

As the drought plagues Syria, the production of wheat has become greatly obstructed. Grains are a staple food in the country and critical to the food security of its population. In a statement back in May, Qatana reported that “While [wheat] production in rain-fed areas was expected to hit 1.2 million tons this year, production may not exceed 300,000 tons.” One Syrian farmer, Imad al Sayyed, stated that the country’s harvest looks to have dropped by 50% this year. While the drought worsens, approximately 12.4 million Syrians, accounting for more than 60% of the country’s population, are starving from the critical food shortages. This is double the number of Syrians that suffered from food insecurity in 2018, according to a report by the World Food Programme.

The stresses brought about by the drought and the resulting food shortages are exacerbated by several ongoing issues, including the Syrian Civil War. Since 2011, Syria has been plagued by a civil war after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime sparked political unrest and outrage among Syrian civilians. Protests against the government ensued as Assad’s forces began to crack down on protestors. Eventually, a large-scale war developed as rebel groups and extremists, such as Islamic-State, started getting involved in the conflict. 

The civil war also gave way to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported in December 2020 that 387,118 people have died, and 205,300 people are missing or presumed to be dead. Approximately 2.1 million people have been critically injured, and around 6.7 million people remain internally displaced today, in addition to the 5.6 million refugees who have fled the country to escape the war.

Syria was also hit hard by an economic crisis in 2019 and is currently facing its repercussions. This is coupled with the effects of the ongoing economic sanctions placed against the Syrian regime by the U.S. Due to great demand and little supply, the cost of subsidized bread has also increased drastically. As Assad launches his “year of wheat” campaign to foster economic growth and combat food insecurity in the country, the recent drought made it clear that the situation on the ground remains unstable as Syrians struggle to eat and survive.

To help satisfy the annual demand for 4 million tonnes of wheat, Russia has committed to selling 1 million tonnes to Syria over the course of the year, according to a Reuters report. Unlike the U.S., Russia is a strong ally of the Assad regime and has made agreements in the past to export wheat to Syria. Since the start of the civil war, Syria has become heavily dependent on wheat imports to meet supply and demand. The wheat imports from Russia are meant to help alleviate at least some of the pressure off of Syria’s wheat production and food supply systems as the country fights through the drought.

Depending on Russia’s contributions, there may not be enough support to tackle Syria’s current food shortage. As Syria struggles with its own economic issues, it faces difficulty paying Russia for the imported wheat. Because of this, wheat from Russia has not been arriving in Syria at the necessary speed or in the amount required to combat the ongoing crisis. While imports are crucial for a country like Syria to rebuild and provide for its people, Syria’s financial issues, exacerbated by the Syrian Civil War and the 2019 economic crisis, hinder the country from utilizing Russia’s aid to the fullest capacity.

Another flaw in response to the drought stems from the Kurdish-led autonomous region of Syria. Located in the northern and eastern areas of the country, the autonomous administration is home to the largest part of Syria’s breadbasket, accounting for almost 70% of the country’s wheat production, according to Reuters. Although the Kurdish-led territory is also facing a decrease in rainfall and overall wheat production, the autonomous administration has refused to sell its wheat to those living outside the territory. 

While this refusal is being done to promote self-sufficiency among those living in the autonomous administration, its effects on the nationwide food shortage could be dire. Despite the tensions between the Assad regime and the Kurds, many Syrians have to depend on the wheat being grown from the Kurdish-led autonomous territory to survive. The more wheat produced and distributed locally, the better the food supply can be for Syrian families on the ground.

As the drought has left Syrians starving and struggling to provide food for their families, humanitarian aid would be of great assistance. However, depending solely on wheat imports from Russia has proven to be financially straining to the economically unstable Syria. Instead, calling on international humanitarian aid organizations and government agencies to provide food and financial donations to the country may be a helpful route to take. Organizations such as Islamic Relief and USAID are just a few of the many aid groups that have assisted Syrian civilians in the past 10 years. Syria ought to reach out to well-respected and recognized aid organizations to receive help alongside the supportive actions from Russia. However, a UN report from 2015 highlights past difficulties with aid being transported into Syria, mentioning that out of 212,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance, only 304 people received food in one month. While restrictions on aid have existed in the past, we must be cautious yet hopeful that aid will be properly received.

In addition to reaching for outside aid, pressure should be placed on the Kurdish-led autonomous territory to reconsider its restrictions on the sale and distribution of its wheat supply throughout Syria. Pressure can be placed on the Kurds by allies, such as the U.S., to increase the supply of wheat being circulated across the country. The economic sanctions on Syria placed by the U.S. can also be reconsidered. While the sanctions target the Assad regime, the victims are ultimately the civilians who have to suffer financially. Relieving at least some sanctions could improve the economic situation on the ground in Syria, allowing for bread to be sold at reasonable prices and for the country to financially support the import and export of goods.

However, diplomacy is needed to reach a final solution. The Syrian Civil War continuously exacerbates the issues of food insecurity brought on by droughts in the country. After addressing the critical food shortage, among other pressing humanitarian issues on the ground, negotiations between all parties involved in the civil war, including the Assad regime, the U.S., Russia, and more, should continue. Without a final compromise, issues like the food shortage will worsen the longer the situation remains unsolved.

Tackling food insecurity in Syria once and for all in the wake of the recent drought is difficult, as it is complicated by the 10-year civil war and already-existing economic, political, and humanitarian issues. This is why there must be a set of both short-term and long-term efforts to address all aspects of the crisis in Syria – from the most pressing issues to the underlying political and economic conditions.

Muna Khalidi


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