Syria's drought puts Assad's wheat drive in peril

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has been pushing a campaign called “the year of wheat”.

But instead he’s facing a year of drought.

A lack of rainfall risks leaving an import gap of at least 1.5 million tons – that Syria’s Minister of Agriculture has put down to climate change.

The harvest has dropped this year by around 50 percent - says Farmer Imad al Sayyed.

The agricultural blow and lack of funds to finance the imports will add pressure to Syria’s already battered economy.

Russia, one of the world's largest exporters of wheat and one of Assad's closest allies, says it’s stepping in to help the country meet the four million tonnes of annual domestic demand.

But its cargoes have been slow to arrive in recent years as funds grew scarce, with publicly available customs data showing no significant supplies to Syria.

Officials and expert estimates show at least 1.5 million tons of wheat imports were needed.

They said a 1.2 million-ton government purchasing target, driven by forced sales to the government, now looked wildly unrealistic.

The country's bread basket lies in the northeast Hasaka province where much of the country's cereals crop is in the hands of breakaway Kurds.

Damascus is unlikely to get any supplies from farmers under the Kurdish-led administration there, where over 60 percent of the country's wheat is grown.

About 70 percent of wheat production still lies outside of government control, forcing it to compete with other bidders by pushing prices up.

Meanwhile Syrians are going hungry.

Much of the domestic wheat demand is needed to support a government bread subsidy program.

The country’s financial troubles have already translated into bread shortages with some residents waiting in lines of up to five hours across government-controlled areas.

The World Food Programme said in March a record 12.4 million Syrians suffer from food insecurity and hunger.

That’s more than 60 percent of the population and double the number seen in 2018.

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