Experts worry that Syrians will have increasing problems accessing food in the coming months, as prices rise, conflict disrupts supply lines, dwindling finances strain subsidies and imports face challenges.
Nearly one year of unrest in Syria has made it difficult for aid workers to assess the exact food needs in the country, but the little information that does exist suggests that the accessibility and affordability of food are already shrinking, while the availability of food could also become a problem later this year.
“Life in Syria has become harsh,” an inhabitant of Sanhaya, a Damascus suburb, told IRIN. “Electricity is cut off up to six hours a day, sometimes more. Heating oil and fuel are very difficult to find,” he added.
A resident of central Damascus told IRIN bread has become difficult to find, especially in the evening. Milk, `labneh’ (a soft, spreadable, yogurt-like cheese), cheese and olive oil can also be hard to find, he said.
In its latest update on global food security published on 10 February, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said 1.4 million people have become food insecure since March 2011, when a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad spurred a violent crackdown by government forces, which has killed at least 5,400 people, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Food insecurity is focused in “hotspots” like Homs, Hama, rural Damascus, Dera’a and Idlib, WFP said.
“The situation is too volatile and the information coming out of Syria too patchy for us to take a meaningful view of the impacts on food security at this stage,” Nicholas Jacobs, media officer for the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, told IRIN.
Similarly, WFP has been unable to do a comprehensive food security assessment, including finding out what, if anything, is lacking in the markets.
“The situation is very fragile now for asking questions,” said one aid worker who preferred anonymity.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) said in October that the prolonged unrest was causing disruptions in food distribution channels, leading to localized shortages in several markets.
The case of Homs
The city of Homs, which has been under siege for more than two weeks, is one of the most affected.
“There are no commercial activities. The city is closed,” said Saleh Dabbakeh, spokesperson of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria, which, along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARCS), is delivering food to people in Homs. “If you cannot leave your house for a week… if the shop is closed or the shop owner is unable to leave to get food… how can you have food?”
A resident of the Al-Kosoor neighbourhood of Homs, which is still controlled by government forces and not the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) which has taken control of other parts of the city, said people began storing food at the beginning of the siege, but supplies are running low. Most bakeries are closed and people have to wait in line for hours to find bread, he said.
“We lack everything,” he told IRIN by phone. “We rely on cans and stored food, like lentils and beans, to survive, as the regime has closed the access to the city, preventing new arrivals of supplies.”
“I may run out of stored food in the next three or four days.”
He said he had not received any assistance as blocked roads made it impossible for any vehicles to access the neighbourhood.
But a resident of another neighbourhood of Homs said the situation was not as bad as has been reported in the news. He told IRIN there was food in stores, especially in areas controlled by the FSA, which appeared well supplied with food, money and weapons, he said.
But even in calmer areas, like the capital Damascus, some items – even basic commodities like bread or rice – can be lacking in the markets for days at a time, said the aid worker quoted above.
“It is localized. Maybe today there is none. But tomorrow there is twice the amount… It is not consistent. It’s up and down,” he told IRIN.
But aid workers and analysts said that for now, these shortages are limited, and are not due to a lack of food in the country, but rather difficulty in bringing products from the countryside to urban centres.
“There is no shortage of food in the proper sense of the term,” the ICRC’s Dabbakeh said, “but basic products in some pockets of the country are becoming hardly affordable or accessible for the population, as many have lost their jobs and as insecurity is complicating the transportation of supplies.”
Damascus residents say the price of a 25-litre bottle of cooking gas has, since the protests began, risen from the equivalent of US$4.3 to between $8.7 and $14, while a tray of 30 eggs has increased from $3.1 to between $5.2 and $6.9, and a kilo of potatoes from 35 US cents to between $1 and $1.3.
Meanwhile, a European Union oil embargo and widespread economic sanctions have led to a depreciation in the local currency from 46 Syrian pounds to the dollar in early August 2011 to 58 Syrian pounds to the dollar on the official market, and up to 75 on the black market. Most of the depreciation occurred in the last two months of 2011.
Inconsistent subsidy policies by the government, combined with declining fuel imports from Turkey and a cut-off of European Investment Bank funding for power station projects, has led to a massive fuel shortage and rise in fuel prices, according to Ayesha Sabavala, a Syria analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The opposition accuses the government of hoarding fuel for its own tanks, while government supporters say the insecurity has deterred delivery trucks. WFP says fuel prices have tripled since March, which has had a knock-on effect on food prices.
“Prices of food and other essential commodities have peaked over the past months and are likely to remain relatively high due to the volatile situation,” regional WFP spokesperson Abeer Etefa told IRIN.
Trouble with imports
Until recently, Syria’s agriculture sector employed 40 percent of the workforce and accounted for 25 percent of gross domestic product. Syria used to be self-sufficient in wheat production, but has imported anywhere from 1.6 to 4.6 million tons of cereals in each of the past 10 years, with imports rising dramatically in 2008-9 and 2009-10 because of drought and the spread of yellow rust, GIEWS said.
Some 300,000 farmers and herders who were already vulnerable due to recurrent drought have been made even more vulnerable because of the instability.
Still, certain parts of the country – like Syria’s agricultural heartland, the coastal plain dominated by al-Assad’s sect, the Alawis – have been unaffected by drought and flooding and have remained relatively stable during the months of instability.
Last year, with better agricultural conditions, the number of hectares planted grew by about 10 percent. Nevertheless, the national production of cereals decreased – if only slightly, from 2010 levels, due to late and erratic rains – to about 4.7 million tons. This is less than the 5.9 million ton annual average in the seven years before the drought, according to GIEWS.
Should decent rains so far continue until mid-April, the harvest promises to be good this year, but GIEWS predicts Syria will still need to import about four million tons of cereals in the 2011-12 season to meet demand.
Food imports are not subject to the severe economic sanctions placed on Syria by Western countries, but the Wall Street Journal reported last month that the sanctions have made it difficult for Syria’s state grains agency to secure food at competitive prices.
And the problem is likely to get worse half-way through this year, according to Mario Zappacosta, a GIEWS economist who focuses on the Near East.
“Usually the bulk of imports come before the next harvest in September, when all the stocks of national products are running out,” he told IRIN. “The situation will be tough from mid-2012 onwards, because then they have to import [more significantly].”
Imports of food will be more expensive because of depreciation of the currency, EIU’s Sabavala said. According to WFP, port activities have already been reduced to 40 percent of their previous capacity.
In August 2011, WFP began distributing emergency food assistance to 22,000 people made vulnerable by the insecurity, and is expanding those distributions to reach 100,000 people as the needs rise. But because of the insecurity, its distributions have not reached parts of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dera’a and rural Damascus – probably the areas most in need.
Those areas are covered by ICRC, which in close coordination with SARCS, has distributed thousands of food parcels and hygienic kits to the neediest neighbourhoods in more than 20 towns and villages.
The government also subsidizes basic goods like bread, rice and sugar, which has helped contain the rise in food prices, until recently. But with a huge drop in oil revenue, a devalued currency and dwindling foreign reserves, the government cannot sustain the current level of subsidies, the EIU said in its most recent monthly report on Syria. The increase of the price of butane gas by 60 percent in mid-January “reflects growing concern about the unsustainability of subsidies,” the EIU added.
Analysts said cuts to oil subsidies could have a political effect.
“If the economic situation extends to such an extent that it’s unsustainable – including food and fuel shortages – it might turn the business community, which has so far supported al-Assad, against him,” Sabavala said.