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January 23, 2013 4:53 pm
Syrians face ever more acute food shortages and price rises as spreading civil war sends agricultural production tumbling and threatens to damage crops such as wheat and barley.
Output of some foodstuffs plunged by as much as half last year in a farming sector now in “tatters”, the UN warned on Wednesday. Analysts said the growing privations could hurt the rebels as much as, or more than, the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The military conflict triggered by a brutal government crackdown on a near two-year uprising has shattered Syria’s once-proud agricultural self-sufficiency, with bread queues plaguing some areas while meat and vegetable prices have soared .
“I was very saddened by the situation,” Dominique Burgeon, director of emergencies at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said after returning from a mission to Syria that ended this week. “The mission was struck by the plight of the Syrian people.”
In the first detailed international account of the agricultural situation in wartime Syria, the FAO said annual wheat and barley output fell from normal levels of 4m-4.5m tonnes to under 2m tonnes in 2011-12. Production of staple items such as poultry, fruit and cooking oil plunged by up to 60 per cent in some conflict zones, such as the central cities of Hama and Homs, and Deraa in the south.
Jihad Yazigi, editor of the Syria Report business newsletter, said the FAO report echoed other disturbing provisional agricultural data for last year, such as a fall of almost a third in the cotton crop and a 50 per cent decline in sales at the state fertiliser company. A surge in fighting in the northeast of the country threatened to cause more suffering by hitting the wheat and barley crops concentrated there, he added.
“It’s a big issue for the population,” Mr Yazigi said. “You will have more women forced to go into prostitution – and more children forced to beg.”
Some of the heaviest fighting of the war has taken place in Syria’s agricultural belt, including around the northern cities of Aleppo and Idlib. Rebel fighters control large areas of the countryside, meaning that food supply routes into mainly regime-controlled city centres have been severely squeezed.
Most of the 10m Syrians who live in rural areas – almost half the country’s peacetime population – have livelihoods linked to agriculture. Many now face severe difficulties in sourcing fuel and equipment – as well as the risk to their lives of working in the fields.
While some observers said one cause of the uprising against President Assad was a severe 2008 drought that decimated rural communities and drove people to poor urban suburbs, analysts said the latest war-related food shortages would not necessarily harm the government.
“The regime probably still has the ability to secure what it needs for its own constituency from the diminished supplies,” said David Butter, a Middle East economic specialist at the Chatham House think-tank in London “The economic and physical [distribution] infrastructure is probably still more in regime hands than in rebel hands.”
The war has brought an abrupt end to Syria’s two decades of near self-sufficiency in wheat, the country’s main carbohydrate staple, even if it has in the past been forced to tap the international market during drought years.
Grain traders said Syria faced huge difficulties in buttressing its supplies with large-scale imports. Although sanctions imposed by the US and EU do not officially target food or agricultural commodities, restrictions imposed on Syrian banks and trading companies mean international institutions are reluctant to finance grain imports. The grain that does make it through tends to come piecemeal directly from neighbouring countries, including Turkey and Iraq.
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