Beyond Humanitarian Hand-outs: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security in Syria

By Dr Anas Al Kaddour, Food Security and Livelihoods Manager, Global Communities  |  This article originally appeared in Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Is it possible in the Syria conflict to move away from immediate humanitarian assistance and into longer-term food security?

Is it possible in the Syria conflict for humanitarian responders to look beyond immediate humanitarian assistance into resilience-focused work? It can seem near impossible, especially as public discourse on Syria is dominated by the most violent, besieged areas. But there are areas where international NGOs, donors and Syrian organizations have taken significant steps forward to build resilience. One of those is in agriculture.

To understand how such assistance is possible, it is important to understand that not all of Syria is experiencing the same level of violence all the time. Different areas experience more or less conflict, but even in relatively calm areas, communities still experience tremendous need and live under critical humanitarian conditions. Services once provided by the central government are gone and many municipal structures have collapsed. Simultaneously, funds for humanitarian assistance are stretched thin by the ongoing violence. For these reasons it is essential that we think beyond the “truck and chuck” system of simply handing out goods to those in need and, instead, look at ways to build their resilience for eventual recovery.

Before the conflict, Syria was a major producer of olives, sheep, wheat, cotton, barley, figs and other crops, but the war has devastated Syria’s agricultural economy. In the last year, according to the UNFAO farmers harvested 1.5 million tonnes of wheat, compared to an average of 3.4 million before the war, and there are 30 percent fewer cattle, 40 percent fewer sheep and goats, and 60 percent fewer poultry – traditionally the most affordable source of animal protein in the country – than before the war. Vital irrigation systems are damaged. The seed certification system has been drastically reduced, with 17 high quality wheat varieties lost during the conflict. Processing and transportation disruptions make it impossible to get produce to market, wherever the market may be at a given time.

Nevertheless, with Syria’s history of agricultural productivity, some organizations have seen opportunity here to help spur the economy and feed the population. The Syrian organization General Organization for Seed Multiplication, for example, has partnered with GIZ and the Qatar Red Crescent to produce high-quality seeds developed specifically for the Syrian environment, focusing on potatoes and wheat. Other Syrian NGOs, such as Syria Relief, Masaratt and BINAA, have undertaken sheep and fodder distribution and vaccination campaigns.

These are important activities - in our own assessments in Syria, we have seen sheep reduced to eating their own wool because fodder is unavailable or of poor quality and high price. Livestock is a mainstay of incomes; sheep’s milk can be used to feed families and the excess can be turned into cheese and sold to generate income for a family.

UNFAO, working through local partners, has focused on kitchen gardens, livestock vaccines and is currently working to rehabilitate irrigation facilities for watering crops. And UNOCHA is providing agricultural support to increase crop production, including for families that are unfamiliar with horticulture. Mushrooms are especially easy to grow since they do not require sunlight and can be planted in bags of straw, making them mobile - ideal for displaced families.

Global Communities’ own work in agriculture has focused on distributing livestock, rehabilitating community level infrastructure and providing vital supplies which, prior to the conflict, were often only available from the central government. In rural areas of northern Syria, more than 7,300 small-scale farmers and their families have received agricultural kits. Farmers with one-to-two hectares are able to grow wheat, potatoes and vegetables, as well as winter crops such as lentils and chickpeas, to earn a livelihood and provide nutritious food for their families.

In our experience, each agricultural kit costs about $300 and produces approximately $1,200 of produce, providing significant food, financial and livelihood security with an effective 400 percent return on investment. And despite arduous conditions, there have been some early agricultural successes in displaced persons camps.

We are experimenting with kitchen gardens, and thus far more than 5,800 garden kits have been delivered to families in camps, enabling them to supplement the nutrition from food baskets. To help support animal husbandry and farming efforts, we have provided a mobile agricultural clinic service to more than 4,000 families and trained 100 technicians in veterinary and agricultural support.

While not replicable everywhere, especially areas of active conflict, these interventions provide a significant return on investment from a donor standpoint and help to create more resilient communities. There is much more to be done; many of the services previously provided by government, such as agricultural planning, vaccinations for animals, veterinary assistance, seed production and certification are barely present.  

By investing in these areas, we can begin to move as much of the population as possible away from short-term food baskets and into longer-term food security, and develop people that are resilient and prepared for the months and years ahead of conflict and post-conflict recovery.

Dr. Anas Al Kaddour is Global Communities’ Food Security and Livelihoods Manager. He is a Syrian agronomist, formerly a lecturer at the Horticultural Faculty of Aleppo University and a potato breeding expert at the National Potato Project and the General Organization for Seed Multiplication.