Syria: the thorny issue of food security

syria food safety bythteeast
The impact of the war, along with the hike in transportation costs and the disarray in existing supply chains, contributed to a rise in domestic food prices. © Creative Commons by Tareq Mnadili

During wartime, what’s on your plate doesn’t matter as long as there is something on it. And sometimes, food can really be treacherous. With the waning of the winds of war in the Syrian Arab Republic, food security has come to the forefront of issues; improved agriculture and trade will play pivotal roles in improving this outlook.

Restoring the availability of food in the region will provide the twin benefits of enhanced and stable access to food for millions of displaced Syrians as well as improve the livelihood and create jobs for many agricultural and refugee host communities in not only Syria but also in its neighbouring countries.

Given its geo-strategic location as a trade corridor and a carrefour in the Middle East, Syria has potentially a leading role to play in the regional agricultural markets of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq all of whom have been significantly affected by the Syrian war and continue to play host to a large numbers of refugees. This is one of the primary reasons why food security, an essential needs, plays such as vital role, as it sets the foundation for a revival to normalcy and is the bedrock of economic prosperity.

Impact of the war

The war in Syria was created two major trends that dwindled the food security scenario in the region. While the war slashed the total agricultural production in the region as well as agricultural trade passing through Syria, it also hiked up transportation costs and ripped apart existing supply chain. Trading routes often became riskier since those who controlled it demanded “passage facilitation fees”.

Both trends are a vicious cycle that have major negative consequences for stakeholders in the agriculture industry as well as in the food supply chains. From producers, consumers to traders and governments everyone suffered shortages of a basic commodity, an increase in the basic price of food as well as loss of revenues.

Since it was a major trading partner with its neighboring countries, the closure of its borders has devastated existing trade ties, thus enhancing the deficit of food security, between Syria and Jordan.

Case in point: Syrian import of food and agriculture produce from Jordan dropped from nearly $89 million in 2010 to $27 million in 2016; other imports also saw a cliffhanger drop from $272 million to $64 million over the same period. Syrian exports also dwindled in the same period which in turn contributed to runaway inflation in food prices. The scenario was further aflamed by an influx of 2 million refugees.

Normalization of trade and political relations between Jordan and Syria along with the reopening of borders in 2018 has helped relieve tensions, restore livelihoods and has helped promote agriculture in rural areas, thus bring about a semblance of food security, especially in Syria’s south around Deraa and Wadi Hauran.

Hike in transportation costs

The normalization of trade routes through Syria has also help the ailing Lebanese economy. While Lebanon has to its credit managed to boost its exports, it has yet to reap the full benefits due to high transportation costs.

Case in point: Lebanon’s food security viewed through the prism of its food exports to the GCC is commendable. Its food exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE rose to $263 million in 2016, up from $214 million in 2012 when the Jordanian border was closed; whereas in 2012 the Jordanian border was still open. Lebanon also managed to export $40 million worth of products to Iraq, a secondary destination for Lebanese food and agriculture products, up from around $30 million prior to the Syria conflict.

Lebanon managed to exports these products by shifting transport routes to maritime and air freight so as to avoid passing through the volatile Syrian territory. These changes added 60% to the cost of transport and ate into its margins. Although sporadic trade continued overland into Iraq, Lebanese traders had more overheads since they had to pay more freight insurance in addition to unpredictable costs of paying-off local militias.

In addition to these higher transportation costs, Lebanese exporters also faced increased incidents of water scarcity, and had to compete with Syrian smugglers seeking higher prices for their smuggled products in Lebanon. All of these multitudinous factors had a cascading impact on the overall reduction in agricultural production and that of the food security scenario in Lebanon.

The impact of the war, along with the hike in transportation costs and the disarray in existing supply chains, contributed to a rise in domestic food prices. Economic opportunities for Syrian refugees, who form part of the core Lebanese agricultural sector in providing labor, also suffered with a decline in agricultural activity.

No wonder when the Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria was opened in October 2018, it was a source of joy for both Lebanese industrialists and farmers. Exports have again begin contributing to increased food security, in their typical unorganized organic way through Syria and Jordan since the Lebanese government has yet to capitalize on this opportunity as it needed to overcome internal differences between its constituents.

In this regard, the 2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) of the Food Security Sector, Whole of Syria (WoS) has prepared a comprehensive report which provides a detailed analysis of the food security scenario based on various evidences from a wide range of assessments.

The report estimates that around 6.5 million Syrians are in risk of acute food insecurity due to primarily factors including depletion of livelihood, lack of finance and physical access to food, and insecurity.

Syria and all of its neighbors have a vested interest in ensuring regional food security. While a comprehensive political settlement with regard to the Syrian conflict could take some time to resolve, the ending of hostilities and the commencement of the restructuring of Syria, holds the promise of reinvigorating bilateral trade and nurture political dialogue.