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Syria: drought puts Assad's 'year of wheat' in peril

A farmer collects wheat kernels into a bucket before being poured into sacks during the harvest season, in a field in the countryside of al-Kaswa, south of Syria's capital Damascus, on 18 June 2020. [LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images]
A farmer collects wheat kernels into a bucket before being poured into sacks during the harvest season, in a field in the countryside of al-Kaswa, south of Syria's capital Damascus, on 18 June 2020. [LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images]

The "year of wheat" campaign pushed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is in jeopardy after low rainfall risked leaving an import gap of at least 1.5 million tonnes, Reuters has reported, citing preliminary estimates by officials and experts.

This and lack of funds to finance the imports will add to pressure on a Syrian economy already reeling from ten years of conflict and buckling under the pressure of U.S. sanctions, neighbouring Lebanon's financial collapse and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Assad's staunch ally Russia has said it will sell one million tonnes of grain to Syria throughout the year to help it meet the four million tonnes of annual domestic demand. However, its cargoes have been slow to arrive in recent years as funds grow scarce. Publicly available customs data shows no significant supplies to Syria.

According to the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), at least 1.5 million tonnes of wheat imports were needed. A 1.2 million-tonne government purchasing target now looks wildly unrealistic.

Syria's Minister of Agriculture Mohammed, Hassan Qatana, talked about the fate of the domestic crop during a tour of the country's north-east Hasaka province, where much of the country's cereals crop is in the hands of breakaway Kurds. "It's clear from the tour the huge impact of climate change, that all rain-fed plantations have been taken out of investments and even the irrigated wheat area production has gone down 50 per cent," said the minister.

Much of the domestic wheat demand is needed to support a government bread subsidy programme. The country's financial troubles have already translated into bread shortages with residents complaining of long queues across government-controlled areas.

READ: UN 'deeply concerned' about conditions of 13.4m internally displaced Syrians

The World Food Programme said in March that a record 12.4 million Syrians, more than 60 per cent of the population, suffer from food insecurity and hunger, double the number seen in 2018. Syrians are increasingly dependent on subsidised bread as rampant inflation has driven up food prices more than 200 per cent in the past year.

Qatana had appealed to farmers to prioritise wheat this year so the country can return to eating what it plants. "We are facing endless economic pressures; our food means our existence," he told state media in November.

About 70 per cent of wheat production still lies outside of government control and its more aggressive position as sole buyer, forcing it to compete with other bidders by doubling the buying price this season to 900 Syrian pounds a kilo, or around $300-$320 per tonne. Damascus is unlikely to get any supplies from farmers under the Kurdish-led administration in the north east, though, where over 60 per cent of the country's wheat is grown.

The Kurdish-led autonomous administration expects to collect around half of last year's crop due to poor rains and lower water levels along the Euphrates, which are down by at least five metres. Along with higher prices to farmers that are set in dollars to deter them from selling to Damascus, the administration has so far banned any sale outside its territory.

The Kurdish-led authorities have had extensive trade ties with Damascus, but have rejected Russian mediation to allow farmers to sell some of their produce to Damascus as in previous years, two local sources said.

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