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Opposition authorities in Daraa ban sale of wheat to government-held Syria as ‘severe’ flour crisis looms

AMMAN: Opposition authorities in rebel-controlled Daraa province banned the sale […]

AMMAN: Opposition authorities in rebel-controlled Daraa province banned the sale of wheat to nearby government-held territory last week, local sources say, in preparation for an expected shortage, as a US-backed aid operation supplying southern Syria with flour begins grinding to a halt.

As of last week, any Daraa resident caught by local rebel factions attempting to transport wheat for sale to government-controlled territories will have their vehicle impounded and cargo confiscated, Abu Hadi a-Rabdawi, the head of Daraa’s opposition-run Grain Institution, tells Syria Direct. The Grain Institution distributes seeds and oversees the harvest in the province.

While opposition authorities have tried to limit wheat exports in the past, the latest ban is being enforced far more strictly than in previous years, two local officials tell Syria Direct.

The tighter restrictions come amid growing concerns that authorities in rebel-held Daraa will be unable to meet the province’s need for flour—50,000 tons, according to Grain Institute head a-Rabdawi—after a United States Agency for International Aid (USAID)-funded flour assistance program in southern Syria ends in the coming months.

A-Rabdawi and several other opposition and humanitarian officials in Daraa province say they learned that flour aid to Daraa will end this coming September by a statement distributed in March by Watad, a local humanitarian group that distributes flour locally on behalf of USAID.

Farmers harvest wheat in Daraa province in May. Photo courtesy of Best Pictures from Daraa.

However, one Washington-based USAID official told Syria Direct on Tuesday that the flour distribution program is gradually drawing down its operations but is set to continue until March 2019.

The USAID-funded food assistance project has supplied southern Syria with 121,000 metric tons of flour, all purchased in neighboring Jordan, since it began in 2013, says the USAID official.

The USAID-funded project supplied nearly half of Daraa’s flour over the past four years, a-Rabdawi says, with local production and external sources making up the other half.

A-Rabdawi’s Grain Institution, along with other opposition-run authorities in Daraa province, are now scrambling to secure as much of this year’s local wheat crop as possible in preparation for the end of the USAID project by halting the sale of wheat to government territory and stockpiling as much of the local crop as possible.

But a-Rabdawi and other Daraa officials worry that, without the US-backed aid scheme, it is unlikely that the province will make up for the flour shortfall after September.

“After the grant is cut off, almost half the supply will be cut off,” says a-Rabdawi. “If this happens, we’re going to enter a very severe crisis.”

‘No clear explanation’

USAID sent between 2,400 and 2,500 tons of flour per month to bakeries in rebel-held Daraa province from 2013 until March of this year, when the organization announced that its agreement to supply southern Syria with flour would not be renewed, a-Rabdawi tells Syria Direct.

Weeks later, in April, USAID began gradually bringing the program to a halt, decreasing flour shipments into southern Syria by approximately “15 to 20 percent per month,” a-Rabdawi says.

As of early June, USAID’s flour shipments to southern Syria have been cut by 30 percent, an employee for Watad, the local aid group that receives and distributes the flour, tells Syria Direct.

“There is no clear explanation for why the project is halting,” says the Watad employee, who requested anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the press.

The Washington-based USAID official said the project is drawing down due to “the changing landscape in southwest Syria,” citing ongoing, “robust cross-border operations” by the UN to provide humanitarian aid to civilians there.

‘A poor harvest’

Under the current system, the USAID-led project exports ready-to-use flour purchased in Jordan to southern Syria, where Watad then distributes the flour to local councils. Then, local councils provide the flour to bakeries that make bread—a major dietary staple in Syria and the Middle East.

Opposition authorities secure the rest of the flour—roughly 55 percent of Daraa’s yearly need— from a patchwork of other sources: Local farmers grow and sell wheat to the Grain Institution and opposition authorities buy the remainder from merchants who sell flour produced in nearby government-held territory, a-Rabdawi says.

Locally grown wheat is then ground at Daraa province’s sole flour mill, which was able to produce roughly 1,000 tons of flour each month last year, a-Rabdawi says, meeting a mere 20 percent of the south’s need at the time.

A wheat field in Daraa province in a photo posted online in May. Photo courtesy of Best Pictures from Daraa.

Even if opposition authorities in Daraa could secure all the wheat needed to produce the region’s required 50,000 tons of flour, they would be hard-pressed to make use of it, says Ali a-Salkhadi, the head of the Daraa Provincial Council.

“If Daraa’s flour mill worked at full capacity for 24 hours a day, it would cover only 30 percent of the crop,” a-Salkhadi tells Syria Direct. “We’ll need two more mills.”

Additionally, the local wheat crop in southern Syria lacks the specific variety critical to bread production, a-Salkhadi says.

There are two main varieties of wheat grown in Syria: hard wheat and soft wheat. The latter, soft wheat, has a lower gluten content than hard wheat and is used for the traditional mediterranean bread eaten in most Syrian homes.

In Daraa province, “90 percent” of the wheat crop is hard wheat, which alone is largely unsuitable for making Syrian bread. Instead, the small quantities of soft wheat in Daraa must be mixed with hard wheat, producing a low-quality bread, a-Salkhadi says.

This year’s wheat harvest in Daraa, which began in late May, has also produced less wheat—of both varieties—than in previous years, a-Salkhadi says, leaving the province more vulnerable to a shortage.

“There are a lot of good fields, but it’s a poor harvest this year,” he says.

Much of southern Syria was hit by heavy rainstorms that flooded wide swathes of Daraa and Quneitra provinces during the winter and spring months, including large sections of Daraa’s wheat crop, Hassan al-Meqdad, a farmer in the eastern Daraa town of Busra a-Sham tells Syria Direct.

“A lot of people were harmed this year,” says al-Meqdad. “Heavy rains damaged 95 percent of my crops.”

For al-Meqdad, money from this year’s harvest will be spent on covering the costs of  equipment and labor as best as possible. “It won’t be enough for us,” he says.

As the wheat harvest draws to a close and the USAID project scales down, Grain Institution director a-Rabdawi is preparing for food security in southern Syria to “drastically worsen” once aid stops completely.

“If efforts to purchase wheat and create mills [in Daraa] fail,” he says, “it may develop into a full-blown crisis.”

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