Syria is wrestling with the affects of a poor harvest and a worsening civil conflict. As of October 2014, it is included in the FAO’s list of “Countries Requiring External Assistance for Food.” It’s been hit by drought, sanctions have affected its ability to buy grain, and its processing industry has lost a large part of its capacity.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an estimated 6.8 million people are facing severe food insecurity.

“Although some international food assistance is being provided, Syrian refugees are also putting strain on other host communities in neighboring countries,” the FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System said. There are 2.7 million receiving food assistance in neighboring countries and 4.2 million within the country.

There has been a massive charity effort to get supplies of flour to refugees in particular. Zubair Valimulla, projects co-ordinator at the Al-Imdaad Foundation which is based in northern England, described how it works to World Grain. “We work on the ground with our field partners,” he said. “We work on two borders. One is the Turkish border and the other the Jordanian border.”

That means that the charity’s workers can avoid going into Syria. “On the Turkish border we have our mobile bakeries,” he said. “We have got 75 bakeries around different locations. We have got partners who are working on the ground. They will supply us with a proposal regarding the flour and how many refugees it will feed. We are currently feeding 4,000 refugees every day.

“These refugees who have lost their shelter and lost their homes, they have lost everything. They don’t have any source of food, any income. It is easier for relief workers to work in a safe haven in the camps which identify them and put them with the refugees.”

The charity points out that Syrian refugees now constitute the largest population of refugees in the world.

The most recent figures published by the International Grains Council (IGC) show that Syria’s total grain production fell sharply in 2014-15 at 2.6 million tonnes from 5.2 million in 2013-14. The country’s production of wheat fell to 2.1 million tonnes from 4 million the year before. Barley production fell to 400,000 tonnes from 900,000 the year before.

It means a rise in imports, and Syria’s wheat imports are forecast to rise to 2.2 million tonnes from 1.5 million tonnes the year before. Syria is forecast to import 500,000 tonnes of maize, up from 400,000 in 2013-14. Barley imports are forecast to rise to 300,000 tonnes from 200,000.

“The conflict in Syria continues to impact the humanitarian situation, resulting in significant humanitarian needs,” the World Food Programme said on its website. “Access to basic needs including food, water, electricity and medical supplies has been interrupted in areas witnessing armed activities. A growing number of main breadwinners have become unemployed and soaring food and fuel prices across the country have also exacerbated the situation.

“In response, WFP — in partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and 23 other local organizations — is providing monthly food assistance to close to 3 million Syrians and will scale up to feed 4 million people by October. Food rations contain rice, bulgur, pasta, dried and canned pulses, oil, tomato paste, salt and sugar, and are enough for one month.”

With serious bread shortages across the country, in April WFP also started the distribution of wheat flour providing 5 kilograms of flour per person per month, it said.

“WFP uses over 700 trucks a month to dispatch food to hundreds of distribution points across the country, as well as delivering other goods for the humanitarian community.

“Hundreds of thousands of families have fled the violence in their country and have taken refuge in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. Humanitarian needs assessments in these countries showed that food is a top priority and WFP is responding to refugees’ needs with food distributions and innovative food vouchers.”

The news agency Reuters reported in January on the effects of the conflict on farmers in the region. “Syrian farmers in Islamic State-held territory say production was hit by the conflict, poor rainfall and fuel shortages,” the agency said. “Several told Reuters that Islamic State did not help farmers plant and did not purchase their harvest as the Syrian government used to. Instead, farmers say they were forced to look for new buyers and often fell prey to avaricious middlemen.”

The website Syria Direct reported on protests in January. “Residents of the rebel held city of Rastan in the northern Homs countryside protested Wednesday night to blame traders and local rebel leadership for a three-month long bread shortage, according to video footage of the protests posted on YouTube,” it said in a report published Jan. 8.

“If the regime’s bombs or the cold don’t kill us, these blood traders will — they monopolize the flour and trade in people’s daily food,” Yusuf Shahab, a civilian in Rastan, told Syria Direct.

Flour imports set to jump

Despite low shipments to date, Syria’s imports are forecast to rise sharply, to 700,000 tonnes, due to a drought-affected local harvest and limited domestic milling capacity, the IGC said.

Syria’s wheat flour imports have risen sharply in recent years. In 2011-12, they were 1,000 tonnes, the IGC figures show. They rose to 181,000 tonnes in 2012-13, before reaching 473,000 tonnes in 2013-14.

According to a report published by the Al Arabiya news service at the end of 2013, a combination of insecurity and power cuts reduced Syria’s daily flour output capacity to 3,000 tonnes from 7,700 tonnes since the conflict began in 2011.

“Importing flour places many burdens on the government. It’s not easy to be a flour importer,” Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi told parliament.

Al Arabiya said that Syria had struggled to buy flour and grain through tenders, partly because of U.S. and E.U. sanctions. “The sanctions do not cover food, but those on banking, in addition to asset freezes, have made tenders difficult,” the report said.

The prime minister put daily demand for flour at about 6,110 tonnes and said that many of Syria’s 57 flour mills had gone out of operation and were facing problems “in securing electric power and oil derivatives to run off generators.”

Other difficulties included “the unsafe conditions for transferring wheat to and from the mills and mill workers’ difficulty in reaching their workplaces.”

“Sometimes the difficulties in securing flour is what leads strategic reserves to reach low levels and and vary from one province to another,” Halqi said.

But he said violence and instability in certain parts of the country would not interrupt the production of bread, calling it “a red line for the Syrian government.”

In October, the World Food Programme’s Syria country office produced a report on consumer prices. “The average nominal retail prices of wheat flour and rice for October 2014 were SYP115 ($0.62)/kg and SYP199($1.09)/kg, respectively,” it said. “This represents an increase of 187% (wheat flour) and 358% (rice) on October 2011 prices.”

“October’s average nominal retail prices for public and shop bread were SYP33($0.18)/kg and SYP66($0.36)/kg, respectively – rises of 10% (public) and 5% (shop) on the previous month,” it said.

“Since mid-2014, the average retail prices of both commodities have continued to rise steadily and a sudden uptick was observed in the last quarter of the year, attributed to conflict affecting food production, which stands at 38% below that of an average year,” it said. “Recent hikes in fuel costs (and hence in transport costs) are expected to lead to further increases in food prices. In the absence of an aggressive import strategy to meet demand, food prices will continue to skyrocket well into the lean season and vulnerable families will have to draw on their own resources.”

Key Facts

Capital: Damascus

Population: 17,951,639

Religions: Muslim 87% (official; includes Sunni 74% and Alawi, Ismaili, and Shia 13%), Christian (includes Orthodox, Uniate, and Nestorian) 10% (includes Orthodox, Uniate, and Nestorian), Druze 3%, Jewish (few remaining in Damascus and Aleppo).

Location: Middle East, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon and Turkey.

Government: Republic under an authoritarian regime. Chief of state: President Bashar al-Asad (since July 17, 2000); head of government: Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi (since Aug. 9, 2012).

Economy: Despite modest economic growth and reform prior to the outbreak of unrest, Syria’s economy continues to deteriorate amid the ongoing conflict that began in 2011. The economy further contracted in 2013 because of international sanctions, widespread infrastructure damage, reduced domestic consumption and production, and sharply rising inflation. The government has struggled to address the effects of economic decline, which include dwindling foreign exchange reserves, rising budget and trade deficits, and the decreasing value of the Syrian pound. The ongoing conflict and economic decline have created a humanitarian crisis, prompting widespread need for international aid. Prior to the unrest, Damascus began liberalizing economic policies, including cutting lending interest rates, opening private banks, consolidating multiple exchange rates, raising prices on some subsidized items, and establishing the Damascus Stock Exchange. The economy remains highly regulated by the government. Long-run economic constraints include foreign trade barriers, declining oil production, high unemployment, rising budget deficits, increasing pressure on water supplies caused by heavy use in agriculture, rapid population growth, industrial expansion, and water pollution.

GDP per capita: $5,100 (2011 est.); inflation: 59.1% (2013 est.); unemployment: 17.8% (2013 est.).

Currency: Syrian pounds (SYP): 182.85 Syrian pounds equal 1 U.S. dollar (Jan. 20, 2015).

Exports: $2.675 billion (2013 est.): crude oil, minerals, petroleum products, fruits and vegetables, cotton fiber, textiles, clothing, meat and live animals, wheat.

Imports: $8.917 billion (2013 est.): machinery and transport equipment, electric power machinery, food and livestock, metal and metal products, chemicals and chemical products, plastics, yarn, paper.

Major crops/agricultural products: Wheat, barley, cotton, lentils, chickpeas, olives, sugar beets; beef, mutton, eggs, poultry, milk.

Agriculture: 17.6% of GDP and 17% of the labor force.

Internet: Code: .sy; 416 (2012) hosts and 4.469 million (2009) users.