Instability in Syria has aggravated an already vulnerable situation for tens of thousands of farmers and herders affected by recurrent drought, but only a fraction of them have received assistance because of chronic “serious underfunding” of humanitarian programmes in Syria, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns.
“They are really in bad shape. They need assistance,” said Abdulla Tahir Bin Yehia, FAO representative in Syria. “We are willing and able to reach many of the farming communities affected by the drought and the crisis, provided resources are made available by the donor community.”
“[But] no single donor has given us a single penny this year,” Bin Yehia said. “Funding from the donor community is absent.”
So far, FAO - a technical agency which needs to be funded to operate - has relied on its own funds, as well as money from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund.
Drought has hit much of northern and eastern Syria since 2006, causing tens of thousands of farming families to migrate to informal camps bordering urban centres in search of work.
“As they are considered internally displaced people, they lack the status of refugees and can hardly benefit from international assistance,” Rula Asad, co-founder of the group Al Hababeen, one of the few providing them with some relief, told IRIN.
But in the months since March 2011, many of those areas - namely Homs, Hama, Idlib and suburbs of Damascus - have been swept up in a popular, and increasingly armed, uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, who has responded, in some places, with mortar and grenade attacks, as well as fire from tanks and helicopters.
Because of the ongoing crisis, some 18,000 migrant farming families have had to return to their areas of origin in the northeast, and “are now left with no source of income and are in need of humanitarian assistance in order to re-start their livelihood activities,” said Abeer Etefa, regional public information officer for the World Food Programme (WFP).
|We could not help due to a lack of humanitarian funding|
Despite better rainfall in 2011, many of those who returned to their farmland did not plant because they had no seeds and “we could not help due to a lack of humanitarian funding,” FAO’s Bin Yehia said. Farmers in drought-hit areas are mostly small-scale and thus there are few opportunities for casual labour in these areas, he added.
Rising transportation costs and reduced mobility as a result of the insecurity in some parts of the country have contributed to business and livestock losses among rural people in the central, coastal, eastern and southern governorates who have been less able to market their products, FAO said.
In the northeastern drought-hit areas, herders now have less mobility because of the insecurity, which has also discouraged farmers from pursuing their seasonal migration to western parts of the country for casual agricultural labour. Areas in the west where agriculture remains healthy are now suffering from a shortage of seasonal casual labour.
Most irrigation pumps are powered by petrol, but a fuel shortage has hiked fuel prices, and subsequently prices of spare parts, animal fodder and transportation have increased. Thus even those who were able to scrape together a harvest are struggling, and exports have decreased. (There are differing explanations for the cause of the fuel shortage. Some say the government is hoarding it to fuel its own tanks and to collectively punish the population. Others say drivers trucking it in have been deterred by the insecurity).
While last year’s national production of wheat was the best in the past five years, 65,633 families were unable to plant because of a lack of seeds or suffered crop failures in the 2010-11 season despite the better conditions, Bin Yehia said.
This year’s rains have been decent so far, but must be sustained until mid-April to ensure a good harvest in June.
FAO has supported 7,000 small herders in Hassakah, Deir-ez-Zor and Homs governorates with animal feed; 2,000 farmers in Deir-ez-Zor with seeds; and 500 women-headed families with income-generating activities in Hassakah and Idlib governorates - “but this is a small number out of 65,000 households who need humanitarian assistance.”
Combined with those made vulnerable by drought in the two previous years, a total of nearly 300,000 households have needed “life-sustaining assistance” in the last three years, Bin Yehia said, and less than 20 percent of them have received it because of the lack of funding.