Strengthening the resilience of crisis-affected people in the Syrian Arab Republic is a goal shared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Union (EU) to mitigate the impact of the crisis on people’s lives. A particularly vulnerable group are smallholder farmers who have lost access to their land, key resources and inputs, and who are in need of additional livelihood opportunities to help them cope with the challenges they face.
The crisis has affected the lives of more than 13 million Syrians who are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview. At least 9 million people are food insecure or at risk of becoming so. Meanwhile, according to the Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission conducted by FAO and the World Food Programme in 2018, the rates of agricultural and food production in the country have dropped dramatically, and wheat production – the country’s primary staple crop for both consumption and income generation – has fallen to around a quarter of the pre-conflict levels.
The assessment provided the basis for a strong collaboration between FAO and the EU through the creation of a two-year project to promote food security and nutrition by strengthening the resilience of crisis-affected farmers in the Syrian Arab Republic. The project exceeded expectations in 2016–18 by assisting more than 82 000 farmers across the country to restore their farming livelihoods and sustain their food production activities, which provided enough food to cover the needs of more than 490 000 people. Moreover, the project has provided thousands of farmers with more secure agricultural resources and access to inputs. Furthermore, intensive training and awareness sessions have enhanced the agricultural practices and perspectives of farmers.
Working together to manage dairy and milk manufacturing facilities
“I never worked before, although I own one cow, but I am happy to now be part of such a wonderful team to produce different types of local cheese,” said Samar Hamadeh, a mother of two living in Homs Governorate, when asked about her experience making cheese at an FAO-EU milk processing unit.
The two milk-processing units, established by FAO in Hama and Homs governorates, were not the first in the Syrian Arab Republic, but what sets them apart is that they are managed by the local community. They use an integrated supply chain in which herders, farmers and dairy workers collaborate to supply the units with milk. The community also manages and operates the production process, and packs and promotes the cheese at the local market. More than 1 000 workers and their extended families rely on these facilities for a sustainable source of income.
“I used to make cheese before, but since I have joined the unit I have learned new techniques that have improved the quality of my cheese. Now, I have mastered them,” said Samar. “I spend my day working at this small facility. In addition to the income I earn from it, I make extra cheese at home by applying the techniques I have learned. I sell my products to neighbours, and my children also enjoy the taste of the good cheese I make,” she added. Scaling up and improving business organization and marketing are the next challenges.
Access to water resource has spurred farmers to work together
Water is critical for growing fresh fruit and vegetables, but in the Syrian Arab Republic farmers have suffered from a scarcity of water resources due to conflict and drought. The crisis has damaged water and irrigation infrastructure as well as agricultural assets in the amount of USD 3.2 billion, according to an FAO agricultural damage assessment conducted in 2017.
Farmers depend on local irrigation canals, pumping stations and dams, and farming livelihoods suffer if these are not operational. There are few cost-effective alternatives, but local solutions are within reach. Through local level water projects, in conjunction with water users’ associations, this FAO-EU resilience-building project has restored the farming activities of more than 71 000 farmers in Hama, Homs and Rural Damascus governorates.
Most of the sites were rehabilitated in order to provide sustainable water resources to farmers for irrigation, but in Wadi Barada, a village in Rural Damascus Governorate, the objective was slightly different. The reconstruction of wells was designed to prevent fresh drinking water from being used for irrigation. The rehabilitation of seven wells for irrigation has brought water to more than 3 500 farmers in Wadi Barada and the surrounding areas. It has also provided drinking water for more than 9 000 people, while covering the irrigation needs for 70 percent of land.
Abu Jamal Mereé is one of the farmers in Wadi Barada who observed the development of the project step by step during 2017–18. “We could not plant our lands last season because we did not have any water at all. Only four or five farmers in the area planted small quantities of beans and some vegetables, and only enough for their family’s consumption and not enough to be sold at the local markets. Those were difficult days for us,” said Abu Jamal.
“Wadi Barada is a very productive area, rich with a variety of fruit and olive trees. The overall irrigated, planted area covers more than 110 ha, and it is essential for us to be able to provide these trees with water,” said Abu Jamal. “This season is promising for us,” Abu Jamal hoped, ‘’we now have enough water if we manage it wisely, and we are happily expecting the spring season to bring a bumper crop of fruit.”
Thyme and medicinal plants bring additional income for rural families
“I tried to plant thyme and other herbs in our small backyard many times. I learned that they are good for health and that several types of medicine can be made from thyme. Growing herbs was my chance to make a good income to support my family,” said Raya Mansour. Raya’s words describe the situation of thousands of rural Syrian families who seek new livelihood opportunities after being displaced and/or losing their source of income.
Raya, her husband and their family live in Qadmous, a rural town in Tartous Governorate. Her husband was injured during the conflict, and he is now disabled. As a result, Raya had to find a way to support her family and become the main breadwinner. FAO and EU have supported Raya, along with 200 other vulnerable rural families, by providing them with thyme seedlings, modern drip irrigation kits and trainings on good agricultural practices to help them sustain their production.
“Once we have grown and harvested the herbs, we dry and package them to sell to our neighbours and at some of the small local markets,” said Raya. “I now can make an additional income, and we can buy clothes and other items for the baby that my husband and I are expecting,” she added.
The thyme and medicinal plants intervention is part of an income-generating component of the project that reached more than 1 500 families across the country. These families have received a variety of agricultural production inputs, such as oyster mushroom seeds, beekeeping kits, laying hens and poultry equipment, soup making and food processing equipment as well as trainings. Rural families have become more productive and stable by promoting a variety of food products, like jam, pickles, honey and more, and have gained additional income to meet their daily needs.
The next phase of work involves training and support to rural families, particularly to female-headed households, to develop food-based micro-enterprises that are efficient production methods, have quality standards, employ good bookkeeping and effective marketing to make these activities sustainable businesses.