Syria’s wheat crisis foreshadows a famine

The harvesting of wheat crops in the villages of Barisha Mountain in northern Idlib - 30 May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

Syria’s wheat crisis foreshadows a famine

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Zeinab Masri | Hussam al-Mahmoud | Khaled al-Jeratli

Nearly 60 percent of Syrians do not know where their next meal will come from, according to United Nations estimates. At the same time, economic reports highlighted that the ability of Syria to feed itself is fast disappearing, and this is evident in spiraling food insecurity across the country.

In the absence of urgent response, three signs of impending famine in Syria have emerged: drought and its impact on grain production, unprecedented food insecurity, and declining humanitarian aid funding, according to a research by the Operations and Policy Center (OPC).

In the last few days, scenes of long queues for subsidized bread in front of bakeries in Syria’s four territories have brought together Syrians within the same frame of humanitarian suffering and food insecurity after a decade of war.

In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi sheds light on the bread crisis in all Syrian regions run by different powers and discusses with government officials bread subsidy policies and problems hindering wheat and flour production and provision.

Salvation Government reneges on promises and increases bread prices

Scenes of locals scrambling in front of the automated bakery in Sarmada city in northern Idlib to buy subsidized bread and promises made last November by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)_the de facto authority operating in Idlib city and parts of Aleppo’s western countryside_ to stabilize the price of the bread bundle, did not prevent the SSG’s Bakeries Company from raising the price of the bundle in response to the recent record devaluation of the Turkish lira, the primary currency traded in business transactions in the region.

After the Turkish lira’s exchange rate hit 16 against the US dollar, the bread bundle price in the SSG-controlled areas became five Turkish liras (TL) as of 17 December. A single bundle contains eight loaves and weighs 650 grams.

During the last three months, the Turkish lira’s free-fall against hard currencies continued, causing prices of essential consumables in northern Syria to increase, mainly bread and fuel.

The price hikes triggered a popular protest against the SSG last October. Locals in Idlib criticized the government’s subsidy policies, as the region was witnessing signs of “economic collapse” in conjunction with record-high price increases, a marked rise in inflation rates, and a decline in people’s purchasing power, according to a statement by the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG).

On 23 November, Idlib’s General Shura Council held a meeting with the SSG’s Ministry of Economy, in the presence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)’s senior leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, and decided to grant subsidies from the government’s budget of a reported amount of nearly three million US dollars to support state and private bakeries operating in the region. 

The government’s financial support covered between 35 and 40 bakeries and set the pricing of a bread bundle of 600 grams at 2.5 TL until the end of the economic crisis. 

Since the decision, the number of areas included in the SSG’s bread subsidy plan reached 58 in northern Syria, including 35 areas in Idlib, 13 in Aleppo countryside, and ten on the border area with Turkey.

The harvesting of wheat in Rabeita village in rural Idlib - May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

The harvesting of wheat in Rabeita village in rural Idlib – May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

What is the volume of support provided by the SSG to the wheat and flour production process?

Director of public relations at the SSG’s Ministry of Economy and Resources, Hamdo al-Jassim, told Enab Baladi that the SSG supports the bakeries in the region through wheat supplies according to the regional command’s policies.

The SSG’s General Establishment for Grain Trade and Processing is distributing fuel to bakeries at a reduced price to minimize the costs of bread production, the SSG’s official website mentioned on 11 October. 

The most prominent challenges with bread production in northern Syria are the high prices of imported flour and the devaluation of the Turkish lira, al-Jassim said, adding that about 90 percent of the region’s flour is imported from Turkey and no flour or wheat is bought or brought from other Syrian regions, including the regime’s areas or those controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

The number of private bakeries operating in the SSG’s region is 160, according to al-Jassim.

The General Establishment in Idlib purchases wheat crops from the region’s farmers and sorts them after inspection into four categories. 

The SSG’s Ministry of Economy determines each category’s price and has priced a ton of the first wheat category at 330 USD, the second at 326 USD, the third at 321 USD, and the fourth at 321 USD.

For impurities above the level of 10 percent, 50 US cents would be cut from each ton price, the director of grain storage and marketing in the General Establishment, Hassan Othman, stated to the Nabd al-Moharar, a weekly newspaper issued by the SSG’s General Directorate of Media, on 25 June.  

Othman said that the Establishment places wheat crops in pre-equipped silos, preserves them at appropriate storage conditions in terms of temperature and ventilation, and then transports them to grain mills.

Enab Baladi contacted the SSG, which refused to comment on the amount of locally produced flour in northern Syria but stressed that whatever wheat available is indigenously produced and grown by the region’s farmers.

The SSG also mentioned that the main problem associated with wheat production is the reduced area needed for its cultivation. 

The limited role of civil society organizations

The public outcry against price hikes was not directed at the SSG only but also at civil society organizations in northern Syria that provide bread to those in need or support its production. 

Some of these organizations implemented limited projects to mitigate the bread crisis, such as the Molham Volunteering Team (MVT) that undertook several projects to distribute free bread to displaced families in Idlib.

MVT intensified its efforts on free bread distribution projects for over two years due to bread’s high pricing and the reduction of the bread bundle’s weight to reduce burdens on poor and displaced people, the MVT’s campaign coordinator, Mohammed al-Sheikh, told Enab Baladi.

These MVT’s projects covered several displacement camps and urban areas, bringing the number of beneficiaries to 950, who received a quantity of bread in proportion to the number of their family members, al-Sheikh said, confirming that these people’s need for bread is fully secured.

Al-Sheikh added that the bakeries support project would undoubtedly be the best solution and an important step in solving the problem of bread’s high pricing; nevertheless, volunteer teams are unable to take such projects due to high flour prices and the substantial need for it.

Ataa Humanitarian Relief Association also had limited contributions to securing free bread for the displaced by launching the first convoy of “Warmth of Compassionate Hearts.”

The convoy contained 150 tons of flour to be made into bread and distributed to the displaced free of charge, Ataa Relief’s communication officer, Mohammed Karnibo, told Enab Baladi, confirming that other similar campaigns will follow. 

Workers packing bread in nylon bags in the al-Bab city’s automated bakery - 8 October 2021 (Enab Baladi/Siraj Mohammed)

Workers packing bread in nylon bags in the al-Bab city’s automated bakery – 8 October 2021 (Enab Baladi/Siraj Mohammed)

Six challenges facing bread production in Interim Government’s areas

In conjunction with the continued depreciation of the Turkish lira, reaching record lows of past 16 to the US dollar, the local council of Azaz, which runs the area in cooperation with the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), announced the selling of the 800 gram subsidized bread bundle at the price of two Turkish liras, as of 18 December.

This decision by the Azaz local council is usually followed by similar moves from all local councils in the region, which are run under Turkish support.

In a statement released on 16 December, the Azaz local council attributed its decision to increase the price of the bread bundle from one to two Turkish liras to “public interest and business requirements,” stressing that the price announced is equal to the cost price.

Bread production problems 

The Director-General of bakeries in the SIG’s Syrian Public Establishment for Grain (SPEG), Ali al-Obaid, stated to Enab Baladi that the most pressing problem facing the bread sector in northern Syria is the lack of full coordination between entities working in bread production (local councils, SPEG, and private bakeries).

Al-Obaid added that other problems include the absence of a competent regulatory authority to control bread quality and prices, the dependency on external flour from relief aids at a percentage of nearly 70 percent, and availability and pricing problems associated with the disruption in external flour supply. 

Another challenging factor is the lack of control over bread sellers, who stack large quantities of subsidized bread and sell it at high market prices. In addition, they refrain from using the total quantity of delivered flour and sell some of it in markets.

The Minister of Economy of the SIG, Abdul Hakim al-Masri, stated to Enab Baladi that the high production costs are one of the primary problems facing bread production in the SIG’s areas in northern Syria.

Subsidy rates in SIG’s areas

Al-Masri said that the production cost of a bread bundle is about three Turkish liras, but the SIG is selling it to citizens at the price of one Turkish lira. 

He added that the ton price of wheat is nearly 450 USD, while the SIG is selling it at only 240 USD to bakeries run by local councils directly and without mediators to prevent flour trading.

The Minister confirmed that the government’s subsidy policy covers the difference between the production and selling prices.

According to al-Masri, there is no problem whatsoever with the production capacity of bakeries in the SIG’s areas, as they work at full capacity to help alleviate citizens’ bread crisis.

The bakeries are working all the weekdays, even on Fridays, al-Masri said.

Al-Masri pointed out that the 700-gram bread bundle was sold at one Turkish lira, but after suffering heavy losses and fearing for the continuity of the SPEG’s work, the bundle’s weight was decreased to 600 grams sold at one Turkish lira. 

Al-Masri noted that the selling of bread bundles at this pricing and weight would continue as long as the US dollar exchange rate remains under 14.60 Turkish liras.

The number of bakeries taking flour from the SPEG’s mills stands at 103, which produced 550,000 bread bundles of 700 grams each, last November.

There are three types of bakeries in the SIG’s areas, al-Masri said. The first type includes three bakeries run directly by the SIG’s Syrian Public Establishment for Grain (SPEG), in addition to two bakeries still under construction and will be operated within a year with a production capacity of about 40 tons of flour to produce about 45 tons of bread, that is a total of 70,000 bread bundles weighing 600 gram each.

The second type is bakeries producing subsidized bread run directly by local councils. These bakeries buy flour from the government or receive it in the form of assistance from relief organizations.

The third type of bakeries operates under the private sector. Private bakeries in the SIG’s areas buy unsubsidized flour and sell “tourist” bread—bread fortified with milk and sugar.

Al-Obaid clarified to Enab Baladi that the SPEG distributes flour to all state and private bakeries in the Euphrates Shield region at the subsidized price (the subsidy rate of bread is currently over 60 percent), depending on the operational capacity of the SPEG’s mills, and in coordination with local councils to determine the allocations of each bakery so that the flour distribution process would be completed with contributions from the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD).

The SPEG also distributes subsidized bread through its bakeries in Akhtarin, Bizaah, and al-Ghandoura, where subsidized bread is distributed under a subsidy rate of over 75 percent and a production capacity of nearly 45,000 bread bundles a day serving over 125,000 people.

What about wheat production in the SIG’s areas?

The SIG secures wheat through the SPEG, which buys it directly from local farmers. Sometimes, the SPEG receives imported wheat from some organizations.

The SIG’s Minister of Economy, al-Masri, pointed out that Azaz and Jarablus areas in Aleppo countryside are suffering a shortage in wheat quantities, while the area of Ras al-Ayn in northwestern al-Hasakah did not produce wheat at all last year, despite being known as Syria’s wheat reservoir. 

Meanwhile, wheat production in the area of Tal Abyad to the north of Raqqa governorate has been fairly good, according to al-Masri, who added that the SIG purchased wheat from Tal Abyad and transported it to the areas of the northern Aleppo countryside.  

Wheat production varies depending on weather conditions, al-Masri said, adding that the productivity of wheat in all areas, including those to the east and west of the Euphrates River, did not exceed 100,000 tons in the last year causing prices to soar.

According to al-Masri, certain factors affect wheat production in the SIG’s areas, such as the lack of sufficient water needed for wheat growing due to low precipitation and drying of wells.

Moreover, irrigation-dependent farmers face the problem of costly fuel and pesticides, yet wheat prices are still affordable to farmers, al-Masri said.

Every 1,282 kilograms of wheat approximately produces a ton of flour, with a production cost of about 500 USD. The SIG pays farmers 375 USD for a wheat ton, while imported wheat is priced at 425 USD. The full cost includes fuel, labor wages, transportation, maintenance, and other costs, al-Masri added.

The SPEG operates four mills, three fixed and one mobile, with a 150 to 160 tons production capacity.

As for wheat seeds, they are secured from three sources: farmers who obtain seeds from their crops, the SIG, which sells seeds to farmers through the General Organization for Seed Multiplication (GOSM), and Turkey, according to al-Masri.

The harvesting of wheat in Rabeita village in rural Idlib - May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

The harvesting of wheat in Rabeita village in rural Idlib – May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

The wheat crisis in Syrian regime-held areas

The Syrian regime-held areas face a severe wheat crisis, with wheat being the basis for the key food staple for Syrians, i.e., bread.

Throughout the regime areas, long queues of people can be seen in front of bakeries waiting for their bread allocations. To deal with this escalating crisis, the Syrian government tried several approaches, such as purchasing wheat from farmers and signing wheat import contracts with Russia and Montenegro to import wheat in the form of aid at times.  

However, the purchase of wheat from farmers is fraught with some problems related to the lack of wheat production in the first place, according to the Syrian General Union of Peasants (GUP).

The Union expressed concerns that the current season’s wheat crops would be adversely affected due to the decline in irrigated land area, low precipitation, and fuel shortages. 

Incentives for farmers

As part of incentives to encourage farmers to sell their wheat produce to the government, the regime government issued a decision last March to raise the price of purchased wheat harvests from farmers from 550 to 900 Syrian pounds (SYP) per kilogram.

The government’s announced figures, which were inconsistent with the economic variables and living conditions of Syrians, including the farmers in regime-controlled areas, were increased for the coming season following a decision by the Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, Mohammed Hassan Qatna, from 900 to 1500 SYP per kilogram.  

Qatna stated that his decision aimed to “enable farmers to cultivate their lands.”

Last May, Qatna pointed out to the pro-government local newspaper al-Watan insufficient wheat quantities to cover bread needs and the damaging of rain-fed wheat areas in all governorates.

Qatna said that while expectations are at a billion and 200 million tons, the actual production of wheat may not exceed a quarter of the quantity.

Qatna’s statements about the low levels of local wheat production were in line with statements by the head of the agricultural affairs office in the GUP, Mohammed al-Khlef, who said last September that the estimated production of wheat for the current season is 900,000 tons, while the domestic need is estimated at 2 million tons. 

These figures contradict the promise made by Minister Qatna in late 2020 when he pledged that the year 2021 would be the “year of wheat.”

Syrian government curbs imports to save money for wheat

The low wheat production in regime areas has opened the door wide to importation, an option that would place the already struggling institutions of the regime under additional economic burdens. 

Last August, The Syrian Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade issued a decision suspending the importation of 20 items for a period of six months, in response to a recommendation proposed by the Economic Commission of the Syrian Cabinet.

According to the recommendation, the import suspension decision was made at the Central Bank of Syria (CBS)’s request to reduce the total national import bill, in line with the amount of value required to finance wheat imports in the coming period of the current year.

In order to compensate for the wheat shortage, the General Establishment for Cereal Processing and Trade has announced four international purchasing tenders in the past year and at least six tenders during the current year to import 200,000 tons of wheat each time.

The shortage of this food staple is not new, the Director of the General Establishment for Cereal Processing and Trade, Yousef Qassim, mentioned that in 2019, Syria imported a million and 200,000 tons of Russian wheat worth 310 million USD.

Last May, the Russian private Interfax news agency cited the Russian Ambassador in Damascus, Alexander Efimov, announcing that Russia would send up to a million tons of wheat to Syria by the end of this year.

Syrian Minister of Economy, Mohammed Samer al-Khalil, said in October 2020 that Syria needs to import between 180,000 tons and 200,000 tons of wheat a month and that the imports would cost about 400 million USD, according to Reuters.

Al-Khalil’s statements align with what the Minister of Agriculture said on 6 December, when he pointed out Syria’s yearly need for 2 million tons of wheat to secure its bread needs, 360,000 tons of seeds, and about 800,000 tons of wheat for other uses.

The Syrian Ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, was quoted by al-Watan newspaper on 1 March, saying that Russian imports, including wheat, are long-term imports agreed upon with the Russian side to ensure that the Syrian people’s monthly need for basic, essential, and needed items is met.

Reality contradicts official statements

Ambassador Haddad’s talk about securing the Syrian people’s needs of basic and essential materials runs counter to Syrians’ dire living conditions in regime-held areas, where the government deals with economic upheavals with an experimental approach, issuing successive decisions to control the bread allocations of each Syrian family.

On 14 December, the Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection, Amr Salem, announced the selling of bread in stores linked to the Ministry in selected areas, after cooling it in bakeries.

Salem said on his Facebook account that the Ministry would start selling bread at the same price traded by authorized distributors in the areas of al-Duwaila, Mazzeh Sheikh Saad, and the stand of the al-Sabki park in Damascus. 

This distribution method would be adopted in various areas in Damascus and then in all governorates, Salem added.

Last September, Damascus governorate-affiliated Price Setting Committee issued a decision allowing authorized bread distributors and stands operated by the Syrian Foundation for Bakeries to take a commission of 50 SYP, bringing the price of the bread bundle to 250 SYP in Damascus.

Previous to this decision, the Syrian government raised the bundle price from 100 to 200 SYP. 

Syrians living in regime areas have repeatedly complained about bread quality and quantity allocated by the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection according to the number of family members. 

Under the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection’s bread distribution mechanism, each person is entitled to one bread bundle every two days, while a family of three members is entitled to 30 bundles a month, with a maximum of two bundles a day. 

The bread distributed by the Ministry’s selling points was reported to be of low quality, dense, and doughy with a sour smell. 

Last May, the regime’s government announced a new distribution mechanism for bread, based on distributing it through the “smart card” system, which would allow the monthly bread allocation of a single family to be determined according to the number of its members.

This mechanism limited the amount of bread allocated to Syrians, as some families were receiving quantities incompatible with their needs and contradicted official statements claiming to import wheat to cover Syrians’ need for bread. 

Locals from the villages of Rabeita and Radwa in the Barisha Mountain area in northern Idlib using the scythe to harvest wheat crops - 30 May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

Locals from the villages of Rabeita and Radwa in the Barisha Mountain area in northern Idlib using the scythe to harvest wheat crops – 30 May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

Northeastern Syria has enough wheat stocks for two years

Scenes of long queues in front of bakeries and bread distribution centers have become a familiar sight in areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), despite having 80 percent of Syria’s wheat stocks. 

The bread crisis manifested in high flour prices, scarcity of bread, and low quality has coincided with a strike by a group of bakery owners in the Deir Ezzor areas controlled by AANES, making it almost impossible to obtain subsidized bread.

Bread and flour crisis leads to strikes in some AANES areas

One of the main reasons for the strike is the disparity in flour quantities distributed by AANES, with some regions receiving little quantities of flour that fail to meet their needs, while others receive more than their actual need, a bakery owner in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor told Enab Baladi.

The owner pointed out that bakery owners bought unsubsidized flour from local markets to make bread and sell it to people, hoping to receive support from AANES in the future after it promised to help them in the flour issue. However, bakery owners were shocked by the Economic commission’s request, asking them to postpone flour payments until further notice.

The Deir Ezzor civil council’s Economic commission informed bakery owners during a meeting held at the end of last November of its intention to reduce bakeries provisions by about 20 percent, which, according to bakery owners met by Enab Baladi, would adversely impact people’s bread allocations.

The owners provided Enab Baladi with figures showing that the local flour procurement in Deir Ezzor areas under AANES’ control is 280,000 tons, but AANES only provides 250,000 tons. 

In addition, the bakery owners mentioned that AANES sells them fuel to operate their facilities at the subsidized price of 20,000 SYP per barrel, but they complained about its poor quality.

To stop the strike, AANES started providing support to bakeries to operate three days a week, which did not help end the bread crisis in Deir Ezzor areas run by AANES. 

The most affected by the bread crisis

The cessation of bakeries from selling bread has led locals in AANES areas to seek alternatives, including buying flour to prepare homemade bread. 

The great demand for flour caused its prices to hike, reaching 90,000 SYP for the 50 kilograms bag in the markets of Deir Ezzor. 

Enab Baladi surveyed civilians’ views in Raqqa city in northeast Syria, who said that insufficient bread allocations are not the only problem facing families but also the poor quality of the distributed bread. 

A family of five to seven members needs a minimum amount of 5000 SYP to buy its daily needs of bread.

AANES’ wheat stocks

The wheat production in northeastern Syria is experiencing weaknesses, despite wheat being a staple crop for the region, a statement by AANES said on 4 November.

AANES has accused Turkey of cutting off the Euphrates River’s water to its areas, considering the cutting at the top reasons behind the decreased wheat production.

In response to the wheat crisis, AANES’ Economy and Agriculture Authority tried to control wheat quantities designated to bakeries in the form of flour “to prevent a bread crisis, with bread being a daily necessity for people.”

AANES’ wheat stocks are sufficient until 2023, containing a quantity of nearly 200,000 tons, while the northeastern region requires 700,000 tons, according to statements by the joint head of the Economy and Agricultural Authority, Salman Barudo.

Barudo pointed out that the average wheat purchase value costs AANES about a million and 100,000 SYP per ton and is sold to bakeries as flour at 60,000 SYP per ton.

The production cost of a ton of wheat is estimated at a million SYP.

Meanwhile, the cost of a single bread bundle is 1000 SYP, sold to consumers at only 250 SYP, according to Barudo.

For his part, the joint head of the Agricultural Society Development Company in Northeast Syria, Mustafa Khalil, explained that the amounts of flour allocated to bakeries are distributed according to local council statistics to cover the needs of the entire population, but a large portion of this flour is sold instead of being used in the making of bread.

The Company distributes a daily flour quantity of 1350 tons to bakeries, Khalil said.

On 28 July, the Economy and Agriculture Authority set the price of wheat seeds for the upcoming agricultural season at 1200 SYP to “encourage farmers to grow wheat.”

AANES has decided this year’s wheat price at 1150 SYP per kilogram, equivalent to about 36 US cents, while last year’s price was 17 US cents per kilogram.

Syria’s food security figures are alarming

Syria ranked 101 on the British newspaper The Economist’s Global Food Security Index, released on 25 February 2021.

According to data, a million and 300,000 Syrians suffer severe food insecurity, with an increase of 124 percent in a year, while an additional 1.8 million Syrians were estimated to be at risk of becoming food insecure.

Syria is witnessing a state of economic decline, reflected in the loss of over 90 percent of the Syrian pound’s value, which negatively impacted Syrians’ livelihoods and worsened the food crisis and fuel shortage.

 

US wheat support to northeast Syria

The United States supports northeast Syria with wheat seeds through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

On 15 November, the US Embassy in Syria announced the shipment of approximately 3,000 tons of “high quality” wheat seeds to farmers in northeastern Syria with the beginning of the wheat-growing season.

According to the Embassy, the seeds are sent to support hundreds of farmers to produce nearly 32,000 tons of wheat next year, ensuring Syrians’ access to flour, bread, and other wheat products to feed their families and prevent further economic crises.

Agricultural officials in the Syrian regime government have objected to this support, claiming that the United States wants to destroy Syrian agriculture by donating seeds containing high rates of nematodes [plant-parasitic worms], posing a great threat to agriculture in the region.

In response to an email by Enab Baladi, USAID’s media office confirmed previous statements by its spokesperson that USAID is supplying Adana and Cihan wheat seed varieties to Syrian farmers, which are sourced from the region.

USAID added, wheat seeds designated to northeast Syria undergo a series of tests at a qualified lab in the Kurdish Region of Iraq to verify their quality before they are transported and distributed to farmers in northeast Syria. 

The seeds are tested for purity (i.e., cracked grains, sunn pest, inert matter, other seeds), germination rate, smut, presence of barley, insects, cephalaria, nematodes, and to ensure they are effectively treated with fungicide.

USAID partners only distribute seeds that meet high standards for safety and quality. The wheat seeds undergo thorough treatment and testing at qualified and reputable laboratories before they are donated, the media office confirmed.

A Syrian man carrying a bag of wheat on his back in Raqqa countryside - 20 June 2021 (Enab Baladi/Hussam al-Omar)

A Syrian man carrying a bag of wheat on his back in Raqqa countryside – 20 June 2021 (Enab Baladi/Hussam al-Omar)


Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Idlib Hadia Mansour contributed to this in-depth article.

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