ROME, ITALY — Drought conditions combined with continued conflict are adding pressure to an already dire food security situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, raising the prospect of further severe reductions in wheat and barley production in key areas, along with increased food import needs and higher prices for 2014, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on May 15. 

Wheat and barley are the country’s two most important food crops. The total area planted with wheat is estimated to have declined by about 15% as compared with the average of recent years and FAO has put wheat production at an expected 1.97 million tonnes for 2014, some 52% below the average for the 2001-11 period.

FAO released its latest food security outlook for Syria through its Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) as farmers were preparing to harvest winter grains over the next few weeks. The country brief is based on satellite imagery, field reports and information provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform (MAAR) of Syria and other sources.

The brief shows that rainfall picked up in March and early April as winter crops reached maturity, but an exceptionally dry January-February period had already affected crops in the crucial establishment and growth phases.

Meanwhile, significant rainfall deficits ranging from 55% to 85% in some areas, from October 2013 to the end of April 2014, kept cumulative rainfall well below seasonal average, weighing heavily on crop yield projections and rangeland conditions across vast agricultural areas in the northwest of the country.

The situation in Quonaitra, Al-Ghab, Tartus, Lattakia and Idleb remains at the drought “warning” phase, with cumulative rains below 50% of the seasonal average.

The changing weather conditions, coupled with the impact of the conflict, are expected to increase the gap between local production and domestic food requirements this year, resulting in increased food price inflation, loss of employment and disruptions in markets and trade activities.

“The pressure continues to mount on displaced families and other vulnerable farmers, threatening long-term consequences for their food security, health and economic survival,” Eriko Hibi, the FAO Representative in Syria said. 

The poor weather conditions are exacerbating an already precarious food security situation brought on, primarily, by conflict and the resulting  devastation of livelihoods. Agricultural production has suffered due to declining availability and higher prices of agricultural inputs; damage and destruction of irrigation infrastructure and other farm equipment, including storage facilities; the disruption of markets; the abandonment of agricultural lands; power shortages and the lack of other services and resources.

FAO’s yield projections are significantly lower than government estimates, but both sets of figures show an expected sharp decline in output. 

FAO’s yield calculations, based on remote-sensing data and the Agricultural Stress Index (ASI), indicate a yield level at 1.5 tonnes/hectare, much lower than the normal average level of 2.4 tonnes/hectare used in other estimates.

Food shortages have pushed up import requirements, and prices for cereals and other foods climbed by 108% in November 2013, compared with the year before.

“FAO and its partners have been able to support families in the agriculture sector to protect their livelihoods. This can provide desperately needed food and income, but we need to work with farmers, the government and all stakeholders to do much more, and to act even more quickly,” FAO’s Hibi said.

FAO distributed wheat and barley seeds to nearly 29 000 farming families (in Idleb, Aleppo, Al Hasakeh and Hama governorates) to support the 2013-14 winter cropping season.

The UN agency is also gearing up for next winter’s cereal production, with the aim of helping at least 50,000 vulnerable small-scale farming households (approximately 350,000 people) living in crisis-affected areas to cultivate at least one hectare of land each. This would enable families to meet their food needs for 12 months and produce a surplus to sell on the market.

The livestock sector has also been severely hit, with huge impact on agriculture and livelihoods. Thus, livestock feed and veterinary assistance are also being provided, along with support for backyard poultry and vegetable production, to increase food availability and enhance nutrition. 

As of early May 2014, almost 2.7 million refugees were registered in the region covering Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The number of internally-displaced persons is estimated at 6.5 million.   

Under the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) for 2014, FAO is appealing for $43.6 million to assist 135,000 households (about 945,000 people), to help them produce their own food (cereal and livestock), diversify their livelihoods, and improve their prospects for the future.

Insufficient support to the agriculture sector could worsen the already fragile food security situation, not only in Syria but also in neighboring countries.