The Future Beyond Conflict: Food and Water Security in Syria

6 September 2016 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Poor water management and policy decisions have reduced Syria’s supply of water.
  • Five years of continuous conflict have brought essential food and water services to the brink of collapse.
  • Heavy drought, lack of adequate governance and the threat of radical groups, such as Islamic State, have escalated Syria’s food and water crisis.
  • Since the start of the conflict, millions of Syrians have become dependent on imported food aid.
  • Due to the persistence of the civil war, Syrians face, and will continue to face, an increasing and dire risk to future food and water security.


Syria has experienced the collapse of its agricultural system as a result of a severe drought and years of civil war. Similarly, over-extraction of groundwater and a dwindling water supply have added to tensions and increase Syria’s food and water insecurity. Many Syrians rely on international aid from neighbouring countries and international agencies like the United Nations. State agencies have a limited capacity to respond to growing food and water shortages. Until peace is achieved and stable governance is restored in the country, Syria has little ability to improve its food security and secure alternative water supplies.


Food Availability and the Impact of Conflict  


Syria’s population is difficult to estimate due to the ongoing conflict and the mass migration of people. UN figures estimate that as of 2016, 18 million people reside in the country. Since the civil war began in 2011, about 60 per cent of the country’s population has been displaced – an estimated 12.5 million people. Internally displaced people are at the highest risk of food insecurity, as well as families with females as the head of household.

The Syrian population dramatically increased from three million people in 1950 to 22 million in 2012. This rapid increase in population is a factor that contributed to the country’s scarce water status. A severe drought from 2007-10 heavily influenced migration flow into the cities, with as many as 1.5 million people from rural farming areas migrating to the outskirts of urban centres and further adding to the existing influx of migrants after the Iraq war. The increased flow of people into the cities contributed to unemployment and social unrest, and exacerbated existing challenges to food and water supplies.

Food Availability

Researchers have suggested that the drought was most likely due to climate change, brought on by an increased trend towards warmer and drier conditions in the Middle East. Annual average rainfall across the region has been declining since 1940, particularly over the last three decades. Between 2006 and 2009, wheat production dropped by 46 per cent, and barley by 67 per cent.

The agriculture sector was formerly a large source of income for a majority of the Syrian population. After a damaging drought and the addition of on-going conflict, Syria is now reliant on wheat imports. The government previously maintained an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of wheat reserves to ensure supply for a year as part of a policy to insure itself against any type of Western-economic sanction. These reserves have now completely run out.

Syria has been self-sufficient in other food staples including potatoes, red meat and poultry in the past. The state has gradually been lifting import restrictions on these items in an effort to increase the food supply and improve food security. The state has attempted to increase credit lines with Iran and Russia to cover the cost of food imports, particularly after rebel groups seized major grain silos storing the bulk of strategic reserves in north-western Syria. The country’s shrinking agricultural sector will take years to recover given the current state of affairs. This undoubtedly will have an impact on the health and nutrition of Syrians, not only increasing the risk of disease, but placing further pressure on already limited state resources and creating further tensions for the country in the future.

The Effect of Conflict

Before the 2011 uprising, Syria was beginning to develop modern farming techniques and modern infrastructure. As a result of the conflict, much of this technology today has been destroyed or is idle. One of the pre-2011 economic factors considered to have fuelled the uprising was liberal economic reforms that saw the erosion of wealth in farming communities. The future outlook for food security appears to be challenging if the government cannot increase subsidies, and agricultural families have little revenue to repair significant damage done to agricultural infrastructure. The agricultural sector will require state support in the aftermath of conflict.

Syria has a diverse landscape that formerly enabled the country to produce wheat, barley, legumes, olives, grapes, cherries and citrus fruits. Before the civil war, Syrian farmers were producing four million tonnes of wheat, with 2.5 million purchased by the state and the rest being exported. In 2015, farmers sold just 450,000 tonnes of wheat. The conflict has reduced the area for farming from 3.125 million hectares in 2010 to 2.16 million hectares in 2015-16. Prior to the conflict, the north-east province of Hasaka produced almost half of the country’s supply of wheat. The region has also experienced heavy fighting between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG militia) and Islamic State (IS) militants, coupled with US-led air strikes.

Syria has experienced a depletion of its livestock as a result of conflict, falling by about 40 per cent from the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2010 estimates of 15.5 million sheep and two million goats. It is believed that the poultry sector has lost about 70 per cent of its production. Since March 2011, the production of wheat, chickpeas and lentils has dropped by 53, 30 and 70 per cent respectively. Crop production has fallen due to the impact of conflict on fertilisers, a reduction of fuel subsidies, and disruptions to trade routes.

The destruction of agricultural infrastructure and a lack of condensed chemical fertilisers has impacted summer crop production and resulted in much drier soils. Since government-controlled irrigation is no longer able to irrigate crops during the summer, rainfall during the winter has become essential to maintaining what is left of Syrian agriculture. In parts of the country where there are lower levels of conflict, such as the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, farmland that has not been badly affected by the conflict has enabled these towns to continue to export produce to neighbouring markets in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

The falling production of crops as a result of conflict can be largely attributed to the impact of conflict on fertilisers, a disruption to trade routes and reduced government subsidies on fuel. The surrounding conflict means that if farmers are able to successfully harvest their produce, they then struggle getting their produce to market to sell. Many farmers can no longer generate a sufficient income, and for many people who are unable to afford to migrate and who do not have easy access to food aid distributors, the risk of starvation is threatening.

Many people who are forced to relocate to the state-controlled areas of Aleppo and Damascus are dependent on food parcels. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, over half of the Syrian population is food insecure, with one in three people unable to afford basic food items. Where the country was once one of the region’s largest producers, Syria is increasingly a net importer of basic food items. The breakdown of the agricultural system could have severe implications for the country’s food security in the future.

Years of conflict have severely damaged the agricultural sector and had a major impact on food supplies. A large number of Syrians have become unemployed since the conflict, and many are largely dependent on food parcels from various charity agencies, UN agencies like the World Food Programme (WFP) and food brought across the border by Syrian expatriates. The WFP has been responsible for handing out food vouchers to millions of people across Syria and the wider region affected by conflict. With the value of food vouchers decreasing throughout 2015, many families were forced to buy less nutritious staple products to maximise the amount of food from their vouchers.

In the besieged towns of Homs, Mouadamiya and eastern Ghouta, the regime has used food as part of a “starve into submission” policy. Food has been used as a tool to encourage rebels to hand over weapons in return for the regime allowing the entry of food into these rebel-held towns. While this practice has not been widespread across the country, if the regime becomes more desperate for influence, there may be dire consequences for thousands of people forced to starve.

Young children and pregnant women are the most at risk of nutritional deficiencies in Syria. The WFP notes that malnutrition in the early years of a child’s life can cause delays in growth, mental health problems and a range of irreversible health effects. A lack of funding from the WFP  means not only are there short-term implications associated with the limited amount of available food but, in the long-term, it is likely that many children and young adolescents will be affected by irreversible health problems due to a lack of critical nutrients in their current diet.

Water Availability

Nearly all of the country’s renewable water originates from outside its borders, with rivers shared with Turkey, the upper-riparian power. Syria has been involved in longstanding disputes with Turkey over the management of shared water resources. Other environmental concerns affecting Syria include deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, water pollution, desertification, sewage pollution and low levels of potable water. Although these trends are key environmental risks associated with water supply, the result of on-going conflict means that these threats are unlikely to receive the policy attention they require. As long as the conflict remains ongoing, water insecurity and environmental degradation will continue to increase.

In 2014, the Euphrates River, supplying water for 65 per cent of the country’s needs, began to experience diminishing flow rates. Chatham House explains that this decreased flow is most likely due to a lack of co-ordination between Syria and Turkey, an absence of strong governance to co-ordinate key and much-needed infrastructure along the river, along with decades of poor water management. Greater transboundary co-operation is required between Syria and Turkey to ensure future water supply.

Data obtained from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites between 2003 and 2009 found that the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, comprised of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is depleting at a faster rate than any other river basin in the world. The high rates of groundwater depletion mean that Syria (and surrounding countries that rely on the Tigris-Euphrates Basin) will need to develop an alternative method of securing their water supply, particularly employing wastewater recycling systems or desalination plants. Given the current state of weak governance within Syria, however, it does not appear that either of these solutions will be implemented in the short-term.

The Impact of Conflict

Years of on-going conflict has seen a breakdown in the controls over extraction from underground water aquifers. Famers in rebel-held areas have been over-extracting groundwater to irrigate farmland that otherwise would not have been irrigated by rainfall. While this has been beneficial for maintaining a minimal level of food production in certain areas, over-extracting groundwater will most likely have a detrimental impact on dwindling long-term water supplies.

Water scarcity has played a large role in political instability and violent conflict in Syria. Not only has water availability played a role in the development of the conflict by restricting food production, but the water supply itself has been used as a weapon by non-state actors in Syria. IS has been able to control the flow of water to Shia-majority areas by gaining control of the Euphrates River. IS has also used water as a way of collecting taxation revenue, and has used its control over critical water sources as part of its strategy to encourage people to join its cause.

Mass migration and loss of life as a result of the conflict has meant that Syria has lost many of its skilled workers. The destruction of key infrastructure, including dams and waste treatment plants, has further reduced the country’s water insecurity. Furthermore, the conflict in Syria has damaged water and sewerage systems, created a heightened risk of waterborne disease, particularly in the Euphrates region. Syrians have been warned to boil drinking water, however the increasing price of oil as a result of black market activity has meant that boiling water has become more expensive. Even if the conflict were to end, it would take a considerable amount of time for food and water security to begin to improve.

The Future Outlook for Syria’s Food and Water

Given that most government resources are committed to the conflict, the role of managing food and water resources has been left to international agencies and local professionals. Any sudden supply shock could lead to further migration into neighbouring countries – a development that would not only threaten Syria’s future food and water security, but possibly increase regional tension and the potential for conflict. As long as civil war continues in Syria, dwindling resources, increasing damage to infrastructure, migration and loss of life will likely have further implications for the country’s food and water security.

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