As one of Syria's most important agricultural areas, al-Raqa province has suffered greatly over the past decade of war, especially under the rule of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
Al-Raqa, once the declared capital of ISIS's so-called "caliphate" before it was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2017, had always boasted fertile soil and reliable irrigation, due to its access to the Balikh and Euphrates rivers.
But farming was disrupted when the violence of Syria's civil war closed in on al-Raqa and as many farmers left their lands to seek safety.
The farmlands also sustained heavy damage under ISIS, as did the tools and irrigation channels necessary to cultivate them.
To help revive the agricultural sector and fill the food gap caused by the war, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been implementing a programme in al-Raqa to support women farmers.
"The challenge of rehabilitating dormant, war-damaged fields is compounded by the rising cost of seeds, tools, fertiliser and pesticides," USAID said December 7.
Partnering with a local organisation, USAID is helping 150 women bring life back to their land.
"Tools, including drip irrigation networks, water tanks and plows, were supplied to farmers in time for the winter planting season," it said.
The local organisation also held training sessions on how to use the provided tools and on useful farming practices, such as crop diversity and drip irrigation.
USAID, in co-operation with al-Raqa Civil Council's Agriculture and Economic Committee, is engaged in many activities in northern Syria, including the programme to help women farmers, said Sanaa Hajj Hassan, who works with a humanitarian organisation concerned with issues related to women and children.
Most of the 150 women selected for the programme already own small agricultural lands, while some are leasing the land to generate income from it, she told Al-Mashareq.
The programme has "alleviated the concerns shouldered by the women", many of whom have lost their spouses during the war, she said, and will help them meet the expenses of their families.
US development programmes have "played a key role in restoring life to the areas liberated from ISIS, including al-Raqa province", Hajj Hassan said.
"If it weren't for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the people of the region would not have been able to return and subsist until now," she added.
"The agricultural sector is very important for al-Raqa, and many crops have so far been revived and irrigation networks and water pumps rehabilitated to allow water to reach all agricultural lands," Hajj Hassan said.
Fuel has also been provided to the farmers at nominal prices to support their work, she said.
Reducing unemployment rate
"Al-Raqa is one of the most important agricultural provinces in all of Syria, and as such, most residents work in agriculture and many own small and medium-sized agricultural lots," said Nasser al-Ali, a teacher and al-Raqa city resident.
These lots not only generate income for their owners or lessees but also employ many workers to help with plowing, transportation and crop harvesting, in addition to sales activities, he said.
Given the overall dearth of job opportunities, the new USAID programme helped significantly reduce the unemployment rate and decreased the risk of young men joining terrorist groups through financial enticement, he said.
Al-Ali said farming lands in al-Raqa go through two productive seasons each year, with a one-month break in between to rest the soil.
Cultivated crops include seasonal fruits and vegetables -- usually planted in smaller lots of lands -- in addition to some types of grain cereals, such as wheat, and cotton, which need bigger lots, he noted.
"In the case of the USAID programme, the most common seasonal crops are fruits and vegetables, since the beneficiaries are women who own or lease relatively small lots," he said.
Damascus University economist Halim al-Ramli said the war in Syria "has created a massive food gap".
Before the war, each region used to grow its own crops and achieve self-sufficiency as well as meet the needs of other areas, "but with the continued separation between regions, the [food] gap has widened and become a real danger".
Appropriate solutions are needed, he said, as the status quo "is not viable at all".
"Any programme that supports agriculture, such as the USAID programme, would have a significant positive impact in terms of filling the food gap and going beyond that to lifting the burden of famine, or at least poverty," al-Ali said.
"If the programme is well utilised, developed and expanded, the people of the region may be able to achieve self-sufficiency in some crops and even sell their products to neighbouring regions," he added.