Despite the changing nature of conflict in recent decades, in which localised, internal insurgencies have replaced state-on-state war, the ability of people to grow their own food continues to be one of the first activities undermined by conflict, with the capacity of humanitarian agencies to deliver food also greatly constrained. Conflicts generally cause some form of food insecurity, by impairing food production, disrupting markets, destroying crops, livestock and agricultural infrastructure and damaging livelihoods and human capital.
Seven years into the Syrian conflict, thousands of people have been left to starve, with humanitarian agencies struggling to access those in need, due to the presence of armed forces often imposing bureaucratic impediments, as well as shifts in frontlines and hazard contamination. What other factors affect the supply of international aid into Syria, and are there any alternative responses to the country’s disintegrating food chain? Strengthening resilient agricultural livelihoods and food security for those who remain, as well as refugees and host communities outside of Syria, remains essential if the country is to achieve long term food security.
In 2016, we commented upon the devastating consequences of using food as a weapon in Syria, where scorched-earth policies, including the burning of thousands of acres of agricultural land, were used to intimidate civilians and distract fighters. In the Syrian city of Kobani, around 4,000 acres of crops and fruit trees were burnt to the ground as of June 2015. What’s more, vast areas of land have been left abandoned by farmers short of seeds, fertilisers, fuel and irrigation leaving them unable to produce food. High intensity hostilities have impacted farmland, markets, bakeries and other shops, causing a significant loss of food items and assets, as well as an overall decline in production due to mass civilian displacement. Less than 70% of the 2011 rural population remain in Syria.
For those who remain, higher production and marketing costs, along with constrained consumer purchasing power, led to a price increase of 800% between 2010 and 2016, resulting in 90% of households spending over half of their income on food (in comparison to only 25% prior to the conflict). This has affected domestic food provisions, with research suggesting that families are unable to buy fresh produce and that 30% of adults are restricting their own consumption to prioritise their childrens’. In 2017, an end of year report by the Whole of Syria Inter-Sector Coordination estimated that there were some 7 million food insecure people in need of food assistance on a monthly basis.
What has changed?
So, what is being done now, seven years after the conflict initially broke out? The FAO has recently appealed to the UN for $120 million under the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria and has to date received just over one quarter of the total. An integrated humanitarian response based on building resilience, with a particular focus on refugees and their host countries, appears to be the FAO’s main objective. The organisation is currently working with the Whole of Syria Food Cluster established in 2011 to coordinate NGOs working on the food security response during the crisis. The Cluster works across three hubs in Syria, Southern Turkey and Jordan, and in the 2018 Mid-Year Review of Needs, revealed that food insecurity across Syria remains triggered by three main factors: political insecurity, lack of financial and physical access to food and depletion of livelihoods. These triggers were repeatedly seen across Syria as the first six months of 2018 saw new offensives, further population displacement, and shifting conflict lines as areas moved between military and rebel control. Specific humanitarian projects led by the FAO include: the establishment of an inclusive food security information network to support interventions in countries affected by the Syrian crisis; distributing food packages and seeds to vulnerable households; and increasing the capacity of vulnerable households to sustainably produce cereals, legumes and vegetables, while conserving and enhancing soil and water resources.
Such endeavours certainly stem the flow of hungry refugees; however, might these short-term gains come at the expense of long-term food security for Syrians? Hunger in UN-declared besieged and hard-to-reach areas remains acute. At the start of 2018 there were an estimated 2.98 million people in these areas, including 419,000 people in nine besieged locations. This means that many civilians do not receive humanitarian life-saving assistance in a sustainable manner. Most of the emergency food aid delivered to Syria remains under the remit of the World Food Programme, and a recent report reveals that the level of access restriction, caused by ongoing hostility has led to an eight-fold increase in food basket prices from February to November 2017 and a five-fold increase in the proportion of children with global acute malnutrition (close to one in eight).
What’s more, the provision of food, particularly bread, has been a topic of fierce contention throughout the course of the conflict, with numerous allegations of nepotism and corruption, not to mention a recent report which found that local men distributing food aid in Syria have been withholding deliveries from women unless they agree to give sexual favours. Some argue that by channelling food aid through government-approved organisations, external donors have helped the regime fulfil some of its welfare responsibilities, enabling it to reduce expenditures on food distribution and focus funds on military assistance. Similarly, a dependence upon foreign organisations for basic resources means that opposition authorities cannot develop trust in their local communities, because their capacity to provide food depends on the unreliable support of foreign donors. This fuels rivalry between the state and opposition groups, in their desperate attempts to secure provisions.
Are there any alternatives?
A grass-roots response to the disintegrating food chain in Syria comes in the form of a network of farmers, family gardeners and activists, known as the 15th Garden, who have been working since 2014 to improve small-scale agricultural activity inside war-torn towns to stave off starvation in between the sporadic food deliveries. Formed by Syrian activists, the network found solidarity with European farmers, who now send organic seeds to the country as well as teaching urban Syrians – many of whom have little to no farming experience – how to grow their own food. Part of their aim, as a self-proclaimed food sovereignty movement, is to support the establishment of a network of autonomous farmers that are independent from the powerful actors influencing the food system, such as global multinational chemical and seed companies.
In response to the targeting of bakeries in Syria, the 15th Garden are currently working on a campaign called ‘Syrian Daily Bread’. Attacks on bakeries are not only direct attempts at destroying a vitally important means of staple food production, but often result in the maiming of scores of civilians – a serious war crime – who are waiting in line for bread.
For years, Syrians have been growing their own food in besieged regions, on rooftops, in backyards and between bombed buildings. The gardens, they say, play an important role in feeding the most vulnerable people, particularly when international food aid fails to be delivered. In assisting this process in Syria, the 15th Garden network wants the world to be aware of a different side to life in Syria – one of self-determination, freedom and peace. Co-ordinated efforts to save agricultural livelihoods in Syria are part of an on-going food sovereignty and resilience strategy, supporting the local food supply system and farmers livelihoods.
Attempts to enable autonomous community-based farm projects, independent from powerful actors such as the state, need to be both recognised and encouraged. For a conflict as complex as the one facing Syria, it is likely that a combination of approaches is needed, including international aid for those that it can reach, as well as alternative agricultural projects such as the 15th Garden, which are capable of filling the immediate void left when food aid is unable to be delivered and assist in the process of establishing long-term sustainable food production methods. For Syria, small-scale, autonomous farming offers a model of inspiration for the challenges that lie ahead in terms of weakened food security, the use of food as a weapon and the vulnerability of farming livelihoods. In the long run, planting it as an idea may well be the most important thing to do.