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Syria may face worst wheat harvest in four decades

Farmers pour wheat from a bag before planting in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus December 26, 2013. Picture taken December 26, 2013. Picture taken December 26, 2013. (REUTERS/Mohammed Abdullah)

AMMAN/ABU DHABI: War and drought have crippled Syria’s wheat crop, with some experts now forecasting that output of the staple food could fall to around a third of prewar levels, and possibly even below 1 million tons for the first time in 40 years.

Agricultural experts, traders and Syrian farmers who talked to Reuters gave crop estimates ranging from 1 million tons to 1.7 million at best, a more pessimistic range than that given by the United Nations earlier this month.

Before the war, Syria produced around 3.5 million tons of wheat on average, enough to satisfy local demand and usually permit substantial exports, thanks in part to irrigation from the Euphrates River that waters its vast eastern desert.

The last time its wheat harvest failed to exceed 1 million tons was 1973, although catastrophic droughts pushed the crop close to that level in 1989 and 2008.

“This year the maximum that Syria will reach in terms of local wheat production will not exceed 1 million tons,” a Middle East-based commodities trade source with knowledge of Syrian grain markets said.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to produce it given the extent of the war. There is genuine fear on the ground in traditional production areas and the risks are high.”

The U.N.’s World Food Program had cited an estimate of 1.7 million to 2 million tons for this year and said that rainfall relied on for crops in Syria’s northwestern region was less than half of the average since September.

“There are a host of factors, starting from the start of plowing to soil fertilization to harvesting and transport and marketing, and the whole process is disrupted, all is reduced to a minimum level,” said Hillal Mohammad, a U.N. agricultural expert based in Amman.

Before the war, the Syrian government typically bought around 2.5 million tons of wheat each year to distribute to bakeries that fed the public subsidized bread, and to bolster its strategic reserve.

Government purchases of domestic wheat have declined and are expected to fall further as chaos caused by civil war and drought hurt the state’s ability to secure supplies.

Nearly a third of Syrians have either fled the country or are displaced within it, and swathes of territory are in the hands of rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad, where the government food distribution system has crumbled.

The Agriculture Ministry told state media earlier this month that wheat was being grown on 1.2 million hectares of land but did not give an estimate of how much would be produced or bought by the government. Syria typically planted 1.7 million hectares before the war, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Experts doubt the government’s ability to forecast figures accurately, citing the difficulty of gaining access to most crop growing areas.

“It’s difficult for agricultural officials in a country where state organs have effectively lost administrative control of large swathes of territory in the main grain-producing Jazeera area to assess the crop sown in these areas, let alone estimate production,” said an agricultural expert with close knowledge of Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Agriculture Ministry officials declined to comment on the matter when contacted by Reuters.

Yusef Abu Ahmad, a farmer in Atma, a northern village near the Turkish border, said by telephone that the length of wheat stalks was about 20 centimeters compared with 80 centimeters in normal years.

Some farmers have pumped underground water to compensate for poor rain, but the high cost of diesel has limited that choice for others in the western agricultural belt of Idlib, Aleppo and Homs, where wheat production is mostly rain-fed.

“Our wheat straw will end up being used for grazing because of the poor rain this season,” said Ibrahim al-Sheikh, a 36-year-old farmer in the plains of Halazoun, in rebel held northwestern Syria.

With drought hitting its rain-fed wheat crop in the west, the hope for Syria seems to lie in its irrigated croplands in the east, which before the crisis constituted almost 60-70 percent of its overall wheat production.

Some local farmers told Reuters they have sown large tracts of land using elaborate irrigation canals and dams that preceded the crisis, and have escaped widespread damage.

The Agriculture Ministry says it set aside 80 billion Syrian pounds ($539.88 million) to buy wheat and barley this season. But even with the funds for procurement and with irrigated lands escaping the drought, the government is not guaranteed to get its hands on the production.

“Even if there is production, marketing is severely disrupted,” the U.N.’s Mohammad said.

“It’s getting worse for farmers getting seed and fertilizers etc., and for the state’s elaborate procurement system, with collection and gathering centers almost no longer functioning,” he said.

In many parts of Syria’s main eastern breadbasket area known as Jazeera, which spans Hassakeh, Deir al-Zor and Raqqa provinces, the government is not in control. The area around the now rebel-held city of Raqqa alone produces around a quarter of the national harvest.

One local resident from a farming family said the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) that governs Raqqa and its rural hinterland have told farmers they are free to dispose of their wheat as they choose, even selling it to Turkish traders.

Government officials do have good access to areas in Hassakeh, Hama and some areas in the northeastern part of the country near the Kurdish-held Qamishli city, another agricultural expert said on condition of anonymity. But overall, the agricultural situation remains murky.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 29, 2014, on page 5.

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Summary

War and drought have crippled Syria's wheat crop, with some experts now forecasting that output of the staple food could fall to around a third of prewar levels, and possibly even below 1 million tons for the first time in 40 years.

Agricultural experts, traders and Syrian farmers who talked to Reuters gave crop estimates ranging from 1 million tons to 1.7 million at best, a more pessimistic range than that given by the United Nations earlier this month.

Before the war, Syria produced around 3.5 million tons of wheat on average, enough to satisfy local demand and usually permit substantial exports, thanks in part to irrigation from the Euphrates River that waters its vast eastern desert.

Before the war, the Syrian government typically bought around 2.5 million tons of wheat each year to distribute to bakeries that fed the public subsidized bread, and to bolster its strategic reserve.

Syria typically planted 1.7 million hectares before the war, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With drought hitting its rain-fed wheat crop in the west, the hope for Syria seems to lie in its irrigated croplands in the east, which before the crisis constituted almost 60-70 percent of its overall wheat production.


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