Food Stoking the Fires of War

Thursday, May 16, 2013
Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. Photo courtesy of Mennonite Central Committee Canada

Syria – the very word brings to mind scenes of shelled and gutted buildings, burnt cars and everywhere people on the move.

To date, there are over five million refugees and displaced people out of a population of 23 million. 6.8 million are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.  Through the Syria Crisis Appeal, the Foodgrains Bank member agencies alone are helping to meet the immediate food needs of 30,000 people a month.

But responding is much more difficult because of the on-going reality of war.  For example, some refugees don’t even want to be registered even though that deprives them of UN assistance. They fear that having their names on refugee lists may come back to haunt them, depending upon which side wins the war.

But what is driving the continuing war? It is the Middle East, and it seems that conflict is a near-constant in the region.  We hear of Sunni-Shia tensions reminding us of the past European wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants.

Nafeez Ahmed, writing in the Guardian, recently has added some causes that have not been mentioned up to now. And they have to do with that most basic of human needs–food.

Syria, which used to be food self sufficient (remember the Fertile Crescent from high school history?), has seen its imports of wheat grow from about 50,000 tonnes/yr to over 4 million tonnes/yr over the past decade. This is despite the recent spikes in international grain prices.

Even before the beginning of the current conflict, Syria was experiencing the sharp end of climate change with increasingly frequent droughts and declining availability of water. Since it takes about 1000 tonnes of water to grow one tonne of wheat, it’s cheaper to import wheat than  to import water.

The problem of weather/climate related declines in wheat production, and the rising costs of imports have met up with another storm–peak oil. Syrian oil production, which funded government fuel and food subsidies, has been declining rapidly. Government subsidies for both have been sharply cut in recent years.

The original flash point for the conflict was a demonstration held in the Syrian town of Dara’a. According to Ahmed’s story, it was all about high food prices and the lack of government action. The brutal response of the government triggered widespread protests and, eventually, the current civil war.

Any conflict in the Middle East has a complicated story behind it, with outside governments often playing a prominent role. But underneath this there are questions of weather and climate change-triggered food shortages. Food will continue to be a crucial issue and food assistance needs may continue to increase in the future.

Click here to learn more about how the Foodgrains Bank is responding to the Syrian Crisis, or to make a donation.

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