Without ensuring that agriculture is built back justly and sustainably, Syria’s already fractured economy and fragmented society will further disintegrate.
Caught between conflict and climate change, the agricultural sector in Syria has been hard hit.
According to official numbers, agriculture provided employment to 19.5% of the country’s workforce population in 2006, while other estimates put the figure at 40-50%. The conflict has directly led to major losses in this sector. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the financial cost of damage and loss had reached $16 billion by the end of 2016. As violence has persisted over the past two years of conflict, the cost to recovery has most likely increased beyond the assessed FAO figure.
Escalating violence over eight years of conflict have confounded the problems in the country’s agriculture sector. Decades of systemic state mismanagement gave way to a pre-war migration and humanitarian crisis that, if not considered in post-conflict plans, will inevitably lead to further instability.
As a pillar of Syria’s pre-war economy, agriculture constituted more than one fifth of the overall national GDP. The Syrian government invested heavily in this sector to become a self-sufficient producer of key staples and to avoid reliance on external assistance. The government had ‘strategic reserves’ of wheat, around 3.5 million tons, enough to sustain the entire country for one year. Prior to the uprisings, Syria was considered one of the leading exporters of cereals, fruits and vegetables to neighbouring countries and the Gulf.
Nonetheless, the policies that led to a short-lived self-sufficiency were politically laden and myopic. As with most services across the country, agriculture was heavily reliant on state support and management. The government provided subsidized inputs including seeds, fertilizers and fuel, but it also set quotas for production and monopolized their purchase. Annually, the state purchased 80% of the wheat produced at prices it set.
Additionally, groundwater policies focused on immediate agricultural gains, without proper consideration for the long-term impact of rapidly depleting this resource. The government sponsored the expansion of farmland and almost doubled the area (3 million acres) by 2000. Therefore, approximately 90% of water drawn from aquifers, lakes and rivers was used for agriculture, as farmers consumed generous amounts of water to irrigate these massive farmlands, severely depleting supplies.
State policies that overlooked the straining of water supplies led to a crisis that placed farmers in particularly vulnerable conditions when the rains failed in 2006. In response to the drought, the government decided to remove fuel subsidies to raise funds to cover the cost of pumping water by farmers, and meanwhile refocused all its efforts on developing urban cities.
Despite their environmental benefits, the cuts in fuel subsidies heightened the costs of irrigation and transportation of produce for farmers. Reeling from a decrease in income caused by lower yields, along with hefty production costs, farmers across Syria were no longer able to cover their expenses.
The government’s mismanagement and abandonment of rural areas ultimately led to a mass migration to urban settings, greatly impacting the sector and overall socioeconomic conditions; much of the arable land was left unattended by the population move and the subsequent unemployment rate increased because former farmers lacked the skills required in urban industries.
By 2016, the sixth year of Syria’s conflict, the FAO’s assessment of the damage included material loss in irrigation systems, storage facilities and farming equipment. Large swathes of agricultural land were either destroyed during the fighting—in some cases intentionally—or abandoned by farmers who fled for safety.
Rising insecurity interrupted trade and supply flows leading to shortages in fertilizer, electricity, and labour force. As such, production yields continued to rapidly and significantly decline, with continued drought only exacerbating an already dire situation. According to the World Bank, agriculture GDP contracted by 41% in 2015 compared to the pre-conflict rate.
The warring sides have further impacted agricultural output and the sector writ large. Armed groups have imposed taxation on products to increase revenues, while the Syrian government’s besiegement tactics have choked off areas from the production supply chain, leaving populations unable to produce their food.
To make matters worse, the government’s funnelling of state resources to the war effort, as well as its loss of access to farm lands, decreased its purchase of produce, gravely impacting farmers with the loss of their main buyer. More products were injected into the market and, with very few buyers, prices plummeted, causing huge loss of income for many families and pushing many from food suppliers to food insecure.
Moreover, many of the battle frontlines occurred in or around rural farmlands, resulting in high casualties in families from these areas and the confiscation of their land by warring parties. Thousands were forced to flee, leaving their land and livelihood. For those able to remain by their land, the rising cost of production hindered their ability to grow enough to generate an income and feed their families. As of 2017, Syrians spent over 50% of their income on food, compared to 25% prior to the conflict.
Existing efforts are underway by various international agencies to revive agriculture, a sector that, despite all the damage, currently employs 16% of the remaining workforce (5.5 million). International organizations like the FAO and World Food Programme implement projects in accessible areas to alleviate the scarcity of basic foods by training farmers, providing support with some of the rehabilitation costs and delivering inputs. Syrian and international non-governmental organizations are increasingly focusing on livelihoods projects that help sustain families in arable regions. But all existing assistance remains limited in scope and capacity.
It is not sufficient to offset the $16 billion in damage and loss. Agriculture is a significant component of Syria’s economy, culture and livelihoods, and without durable efforts to build back this industry in a sustainable way, Syrians may soon face a crisis of serious food insecurity and great unemployment, both triggers that will inevitably reignite the conflict.
Beyond immediate needs, climate change is also a major concern for future production and ought to be appropriately addressed, but state action has been weak and insufficient. Therefore, policies need to be revised to better sustain Syria’s agriculture in the long term.
Water and resource mismanagement have pushed people out of rural areas and caused a pre-war humanitarian crisis. For future recovery efforts, this mismanagement needs to be addressed to prevent the further marginalization of rural populations. Although the conflict is still ongoing, aid agencies could ramp up their programmes and make concerted efforts to move away from the provision of in-kind assistance to scaling up livelihoods support in agriculture. This would help develop and re-establish the sector and provide jobs to many Syrians.
While Syria’s agricultural sector once brought the country closer to a self-sufficient state and employed a significant portion of the population, it now exemplifies the marginalization that Syria’s rural communities have long experienced. It represents the biased government policies that have ultimately fragmented Syria’s society along urban-rural lines. Thousands of former farmers have had to abandon their ancestral lands to seek income in cities, lacking the necessary skills and forced to accept any work to feed their families.
Without ensuring that agriculture is built back justly and sustainably, Syria’s already fractured economy and fragmented society will further disintegrate, exacerbating the urban-rural breakdown and furthering marginalizing rural communities. Agriculture is not only a key industry, it is an important factor in justice and reconciliation.
Basma Alloush is the Advocacy and Communications Officer at NRC USA. Prior She obtained her Master’s degree at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where she focused on Transitional Justice, Human Security, and Conflict Resolution. She also holds a Bachelor degree in Finance from Northeastern University.