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Farmers in Raqqa confirmed that 50 per cent of their soft wheat has been decimated.
Farmers in Raqqa confirmed that 50 per cent of their soft wheat has been decimated.

Syria's wheat hit by a double whammy

Syria's agricultural sector has been dealt another blow, with up to one-third of its wheat crop damaged by a virulent disease.

Raqqa, Syria // Already struggling to recover from one of the country's worst droughts on record, Syria's agricultural sector has been dealt another blow, with up to one-third of its wheat crop damaged by a virulent disease. Yellow Rust infections have been "significant" in Syria's breadbasket eastern region, according to farmers and officials. With harvests now being collected, they warned that production of soft wheat could be cut by half compared with last year.

Hard wheat, a different variety that makes up approximately 40 per cent of the total wheat crop, has not been affected. "Fifty per cent of the [soft] wheat crop has been damaged by Yellow Rust; it's a big problem," said Mohammad Faisal al Huedi, leader of the largest tribe in Raqqa governorate and a member of Syria's national parliament. He oversees some of the larger and more efficient mechanised farms in Raqqa. "Last year we were producing eight tonnes of wheat per hectare; this year we are getting four tonnes."

With his tribe's lands concentrated along the Euphrates River and, consequently well irrigated, Mr al Huedi said they had escaped the worst fallout from two years of drought, only to be hit by the disease outbreak. "It has come at a difficult time," he said. "There have also been cuts in subsidies on fuel and fertiliser. Many farmers have gone out of business." About 60km north of Raqqa city, farmers working smaller plots of land rented from the government confirmed the assessment of a 50-per-cent loss on soft wheat.

"This is surely not a good year for [soft] wheat," said Khalaf Karran, 63, who grows wheat and cotton over an area of four hectares. "Last year we were getting five tonnes of soft wheat per hectare, but this year we've had 2.5 tonnes." In Syria, wheat is broadly classified as either hard or soft, the former used for production of pasta while soft wheat is used for bread. The hard variety has been resistant to Yellow Rust, but 60 per cent of production in Raqqa is soft wheat and therefore at risk.

With the Syrian economy heavily dependent on agriculture, the government has set up a committee to evaluate the problem and to troubleshoot the situation. A response plan and some form of assistance package for farmers is expected to be unveiled soon, but details on the extent of the disease have not been released. Virulent new forms of Yellow Rust have hit wheat crops across the globe, with devastating effects in some African countries, where up to 90 per cent of harvests have been wiped out. Syria, which has some of the world's leading Yellow Rust researchers, based at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), has been involved in international efforts to prevent further epidemics.

An official in Raqqa said in an interview that the agricultural ministry had carried out a survey that indicated up 25 per cent of soft wheat - equivalent to 15 per cent of total wheat production - had been damaged by Yellow Rust in Raqqa, a number likely to be replicated in other wheat-producing provinces. He disputed the figure, however, and claimed that farmers in Raqqa were consistently reporting losses of closer to 50 per cent of soft wheat, equivalent to 30 per cent of total wheat production.

"There are still no full figures for Yellow Rust, just a sampling and we are not sure what methods have been used [for the survey], so it's hard to comment on, " he said. "We are not sure of the full impact, but there are good reasons to believe it may be twice as severe as the government figures will say. That is what we are hearing from the farmers." According to agricultural scientists, the "Cham 8" variety of soft wheat, used in Syria because of its high yield and tolerance to other diseases, has proven weak against Yellow Rust.

The disease incubates in humid conditions and, while the devastating drought has begun to end, rainfall in the semi-arid eastern regions has come at the wrong time for the wheat crops, with unusually moist conditions allowing the Yellow Rust to spread quickly. It represents another setback for farmers in Syria's Jazeera region and comes at a time when emergency aid donated by the international community is still being sent out to drought-ravaged areas.

The United Nations this week began distributing food packages to 200,000 people in Raqqa, Hasika and Deir Ezzor in an effort to prevent serious malnutrition. "There has been a fairly good level of rainfall recently but the drought is still an issue," said Selly Muzammil, a spokeswoman for the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), which is leading the aid handout. The WFP has identified 300,000 people as being in need of emergency food aid over an eight month period, but it has only received funding sufficient for only 190,000 people.

"There are 110,000 people who we believe need assistance but they will remain unassisted," Ms Muzammil said. "Our aid distribution is only going to benefit some of those targeted." One farm worker in Raqqa, who asked not to be named, complained that he and his family were in a dire situation and literally had nothing to left to eat. "We're starving out here; we're poor, there's no money, no food and we've had no help," he said.

Water shortages in 2008 and 2009 hit the region hard. Studies have shown that 70 per cent of livestock was wiped out by the drought because it was impossible to grow animal fodder. Wheat production in 2008 dropped to 1.3 million tonnes from 2.4m tonnes the previous year. The crisis has forced hundreds of thousands of people off the land, with many living as refugees around Damascus, Aleppo and Dera in southern Syria. Many have fled the country entirely, looking for work in neighbouring Lebanon.

Steps have been taken to ease the burden on farmers, including millions of dollars in loans, although the results have been limited according to Syrian economists. Last month, Kuwait agreed to fund a project to improve irrigation in some of the worst-hit regions, while the Syrian authorities are pushing through long-term reforms to improve agricultural efficiency. Damascus has firmly put the blame for the drought on global warming, but some Syrian agricultural experts have said poor government management of water resources and inappropriate farming are the real underlying reasons.

As part of a national food security policy, wheat in Syria was heavily subsidised for decades despite being water-intensive, encouraging farmers to dig illegal wells that have dried up ground-water supplies. Those subsidies have been stopped but the environmental damage caused by excessive water extraction is likely to take decades to repair, even if rainfall is consistent. @Email:psands@thenational.ae

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