Syria's chaos reaches its kitchens

Unrest disrupts transportation, sanctions deter imports, and prices are rising.

February 23, 2012 15:33
Pro-Assad protesters in Syria [illustrative]

Pro-Assad protesters in Syria 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters / Handout)

Syria’s turmoil is showing signs of reaching the country’s kitchens as disruptions in transportation and trade sanctions are conspiring to shrink supplies and boost prices at a time when harvests are constrained by poor weather.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has increased its estimate for Syria’s harvests slightly since it last officially published figures in October. But, Mario Zappacosta, economist at the FAO’s Global Information Early-Warning Systems (GIEWS), said the higher figure is unlikely to be enough to prevent a food crisis.

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GIEWS now estimates the Syrian production of wheat and barley in the harvest that ended last August at about 4.2 million tons, which is up from slightly less than four million tons in its previous estimate. But that still leaves it below the average crop size of the previous five years. Worse still, getting the food to consumers is more difficult than ever as unrest snarls transportation and sanctions have raised the cost of fuel.

“We categorize it as a problem of access. Especially in urban areas that are affected by the security situation, it is very difficult to supply shops in the market. We can imagine a situation where there [farm] products are harvested and stored, but markets aren’t functioning,” Zappacosta told The Media Line.

Cereal crops provide the most important part of the Syrian diet and are the only ones monitored by GEIWS. But other foods, like fruits and vegetables, are even more likely to suffer from the transportation problem because they have such a short shelf life and cannot be stored for as long.

A food crisis would pose a significant challenge to the beleaguered regime of President Bashar Assad, who is coping with international diplomatic and trade isolation, a contracting economy and an opposition more ready than in the past to use arms. The president has struggled to keep the economy afloat and Syrians content, raising deposit rates to support the currency and maintaining subsidies of basic goods at great cost to the treasury.

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“All this is an indication to the business community that the Syrian government is floundering on how to cope with economic deterioration,” Ayesha Sabavala,  an analyst who follows Syria for the Economist Intelligence Unit, told The Media Line. “A rapid decline in economy could also cause the army or people in the government to abandon support of Assad. They might see support for him comes at too heavy a price.”

Some analysts say that the disruptions wrought by misguided farm policies and drought were a key factor in pushing Syrians into rebellion. The drought, which struck much of northern and eastern Syria after 2006, forced tens of thousands of farm families to migrate to camps on the outskirts of Syria’s cities in search of work.

The unrest, now in its 11th month, makes it difficult for aid workers and experts to fully assess the situation. GEIWS uses satellite images and uses estimates to arrive at its numbers for output and consumption, but like other organizations it has very little information about conditions inside the country.

Nevertheless, in its latest assessment of global food security, released February 10, the UN World Food Program (WFP) put the number of people defined as “food insecure” at 1.4 million since March 2011, when the uprising began. Food insecurity is the most severe in “hotspots” like Homs, Hama, rural Damascus, Dera’a and Idlib, the WFP said.

The official Syrian SANA news agency said two weeks ago that the direct damage to the farm sector caused by what it called “armed terrorist groups” had reached 450 million Syrian pounds ($7.8 million). The General Organization for Consumer Products reported that food worth 250 million pounds ($4.3 million) was stolen from its warehouses in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr.

If it happens, crunch time for Assad is likely to occur this spring. That is about the time that the 2011 harvest will have been depleted even if the entire crop reaches Syrian consumers, according to GIEWS estimates.

“In general, the country is not self-sufficient. Domestic production is enough for the first eight months after the harvest [in August] and imports start to take its place in May and June,” Zappacosta said.

GIEWS estimates the country will need to import about four million tons of cereals during the current marketing year, which is down from the 4.6 million tons it estimated in October. But Damascus will have trouble meeting even the smaller shortfall because of trade sanctions.

The European Union’s ban on Syrian oil imports, imposed last September, doesn’t include food. But analysts say it has strained the country's finances and made traders wary about doing business with it.  European traders told The Wall Street Journal last month that a risk premium of around $10 a metric ton was being imposed on all wheat supplied to Syria through the private sector.

Meanwhile, the pound has plunged more than 50% so that a dollar is now worth about 58 pounds on the official market and 71 pounds on the black market. Most of the depreciation occurred in the final two months of 2011.

All that has made it more expensive to buy food abroad. But the cost of trucking local produce to market and even the cost of growing it have both climbed. Syrian farmers are highly reliant on irrigation, but the pumps rely on every more costly fuel.

Even where there is food, sticker shock is the new norm for the urban consumer. Since the unrest broke out, the price of a 25-liter (6.6 gallon) bottle of cooking gas in Damascus has risen to anywhere between $8.70 and $14 from $4.30, according to IRIN, the news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A tray of 30 eggs has increased to between $5.20 and $6.90 from $3.10; and a kilo of potatoes to between $1 and $1.30 from 35 cents.

Syrian inflation is likely to touch 12% this year according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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