Large swathes of the Middle East - in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories - have been hit by a severe drought this autumn. In Syria, winter rains usually start in late October, but farmland in the northern area remains barren. If the dry spell continues through December, wheat and lentil crops will be ruined.
For the north-eastern districts of Al-Raqqa, Deir Ezzour and Al-Hassakeh, this year’s dry weather follows three consecutive years of drought and uneven rainfall. Last season was particularly bad, with lack of rain and diseases such as yellow rust decimating harvests. Traditionally a wheat exporter, Syria has begun to import grain in order to meet consumer demand. And agriculture’s share of gross domestic product has fallen 10 percentage points to 13 per cent over the past five years. Shortages are exacerbated by the population boom over the past three decades. The country now has an estimated 22 million people and the population is growing at 2 per cent per year.
A United Nations (UN) food adviser who visited Syria in the autumn last year estimated that 1.3 million people, most of them small-scale farmers in the northeast, had been affected by the droughts, with around 800,000 suffering severely. Some farmers had lost up to 85% per cent of their livestock. Many have been forced to leave the region to find temporary work in the cities over the summer in order to feed their families. The water crisis has also led whole families to migrate from the countryside to cities such as Aleppo and Damascus, where they put an even greater strain on already overstretched resources, public services and jobs. According to the UN’s Drought Response Plan (2010), 65,000 families were expected to leave their villages by the beginning of this year, no longer able to eke out a livelihood in the countryside. And it is estimated that half a million have now left lands north of the Euphrates in Syria’s largest internal migration since the country was carved from the Ottoman Empire in 1920.
One such family is Mariam al-Falaj’s, who moved to the concrete slum settlement of Jub Shaeer in Damascus. Mariam is raising five children alone, while her husband works as a shepherd in Saudi Arabia after their own flock died. Health and education services are poor or non-existent here and Mariam says one of her children isn’t vaccinated since health officials stopped visiting the area. She would like to be able to return to farming, but without water in the region, her husband and other local men must toil under the Saudi sun, making a mere 130 dollars per month to support his family. Bread alone costs them 43 dollars each month.
The Syrian government has set up a “drought resistance” division, but knows it must embark on a radical overhaul of the agricultural industry, addressing subsidies and inefficient water usage. Because the situation is likely to worsen in Syria, as the Middle East is predicted to suffer further with climate change. One former head of the Global Environment Facility, a fund which assists poor countries with climate and environmental issues, claims inaction is not an option. Mohamed El-Ashry says “it’s human nature to wait until there is a crisis”, but he wants countries across the Gulf region to act now on environmental issues like water management and carbon emissions, to avoid an even bigger crisis where “large numbers of people suffer needlessly”.