Getting Wheat Back on its Feet
Well into its seventh year, the Syrian conflict is settling into a stalemate. Daesh is losing its final territories, the Syrian government is reasserting its authority, and both Kurdish and Syrian opposition are solidifying their gains in the north and south of the country thanks to support from various state actors including the US, Turkey, and other regional players. However, when a fighting ends, a new problem arises: reconstruction. These regional groups and their global allies will soon be forced to pay the costs of recovery. The inevitability is that organisations and agencies divorced from the conflict—and thus the nuances of the problems that come with it—will be forced to front the bill to alleviate the massive human suffering occurring within Syria’s borders.
The problem with this approach is simple—there is too large a scale of devastation in Syria’s food and water infrastructure. These require long-term investments and political stability, and can only be achieved with the help of external actors.
But how bad is it? General surveys have determined 6.1 million individuals are internally-displaced within the country, with a total of 13.1 million requiring assistance. Water-wise, Syria’s drinking water per capita was already on the decline pre-conflict, dropping by more than 10 m3 from 2001 to 2011. However, the number has since declined further: in 2015 water availability fell to 2⁄3 of 2011 figures. Syria’s own agencies estimated that this decline was largely because damaged infrastructure impacted 49% of all potential supply. Food-wise, only 3.5 million of Syrians some 18 million people can be guaranteed to be food secure. Understandably then, domestic production has struggled to recover. Livestock production has stabilised over recent years but is not nearly enough to sustain the country’s demand. Land for grazing remains dangerous; access to veterinary care is scant; and feed prices remain high. The latter hits on a trend present through the country’s agricultural sector: lagging production. Though Syrian wheat used to be among the country’s largest assets, accounting for a quarter of GDP pre-conflict and employing upwards of six million individuals, the conflict has cost the industry dearly. After 2016’s record-low harvest, production rebounded slightly in 2017 thanks to more rain and access to land. However, production still lags at less than half of 2011 production; the sector will require upwards of $11 billion to recover. Simply put, the situation is dire, but solutions are ongoing, largely funded by international contributions.
Within areas controlled by the regime, NGOs are doing significant work. Oxfam, as one contributor partnering with the Syrian government, has rehabilitated wells and installed tanks in Aleppo, monitored water resources in Herjalleh and trucked additional supplies, and repaired and sustained overburdened infrastructure in Salamiyah. By its own estimates, another organisation—the Red Cross (ICRC)—has estimated it has improved water access for 15 million people and distributed food to 3.3 million. Individual countries have send aid as well. Though the largest contributors were the US in 2017 and the UK so far in 2018, countries around the world have rallied to provide assistance. This year, Russia has already contributed $4 million in addition to $5 million from last year and not including various food shipments. Another major humanitarian contributor has been Iran, according to local media, though its various contributions have not been as widely reported by non-regional media. Whether this is because of the special relationship it has with Iraq and Syria that simplifies the aid process or questionable objectivity either by mainstream and Iranian media is unclear. Nonetheless, Iran is here to stay; its contributions will remain essential as political will and international priorities shift elsewhere. The international community would do well to remember that no actor is inherently altruistic, and so should continue to factor in Iranian presence in future settlements and develop an accurate understanding of the country’s contributions.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned fixes are effective in the short run and essential to the alleviation of the humanitarian plight. However, these solutions are insufficient long-term—which necessitates full-scale repairs of water infrastructure for consumption and irrigation. Water scarcity has driven Syrians to urban areas, meaning that post-conflict recovery of rural communities will present significant challenges, especially for agriculture. Because citizens are now clustered in urban areas without significant agricultural production potential, there is a dearth of manpower to help restore former production. However, this concentration in urban areas does make it easier to target aid packages for water and food, and so will prove helpful in the immediate future. Groups delivering aid to the nation thus need to be careful about the unintended effects of their projects: building up infrastructure in cities will reach more people, but hasten the decline of rural areas. Future solutions must be careful to factor in the sustainability of long-term industry.
Thankfully, the Syrian government is also making steps to alleviate this deficiency. The Assembly has sought to decrease costs of fertiliser and fodder to facilitate future growth as well as increased incentives for production by directly purchasing products from farmers. It has partnered with Oxfam, the FAO, and the Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands to secure financial and logistical support for the reconstruction endeavours.
Sustainable aid—ensuring that a self-sufficient industry can exist without continued support from the international community—is crucial in these efforts. Steps like the government’s family agriculture programs and seed multiplication project, which preserves high-yield breeds of wheat, are essential to help replace food shipments and international imports in the future. A joint government-FAO program to resume fruit tree production has likewise contributed to getting farmers back on their feet. Similarly, a Mercy Corps program that pays private bakeries to produce flour and bread helps keep more than 100 bakeries in business while feeding 130 000 people is an example of the smart and community-oriented aid that Syria needs going forward. After all, no one wants a Syria crippled by dependence on continuing food shipments; rather, domestic industry needs to get onto its own feet in order to truly start the country’s path to recovery while simultaneously putting people back to work.
However, it is key to note that all these gains are largely a result of the security situation. Despite all the government’s work, it has failed to win the support of everyone: the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which left over security concerns in 2015, continues to remain cautious of reengaging with the country. Gains in agriculture and livestock are solely dependent on the increased availability of land. As foreign troops withdraw, it will be crucial to ensure this stalemate holds—any belligerence on the part of Turkish-supported Sunni forces, US-backed Kurds, or remaining Iranian forces, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime could threaten to dismantle this stalemate and seriously jeopardise existing gains by scaring off willing humanitarian partners and further destroying the infrastructure that remains.
Though most of the discussion has centred around government-controlled territory, it being the easiest to asses and improve, organisations have a lot to learn from Operation Good Neighbour, which has created a humanitarian haven amongst the powder keg of opposition, Iranian, and Israeli forces in the southwest of the country—Quneitra province and Daara. There, territorial stability, a de-escalation zone, and a multinational partnership between the most unlikely of allies has ensured continuing aid shipments to feed, heal, and sustain 1.5 million Syrians in the south. Empowering civic organisations while simultaneously decreasing violence has created self-sustainable hospitals, stores, and farms—people no longer worrying about their next meal or spout of violence with a reliable support system are free to have some semblance of a normal life. Though by no means the end goal, such a process should be considered an ideal intermediate step to promote security and sustainability in the south, drawing on both territorial security and community-based aid that works with Syrians as well as for them.