The Kabur river is barely above ankle height.
By Paul Cochrane in Hasakah and Damascus
At face value the city of Hasakah in Syria's northeast doesn't suggest a four-year drought is underway. On the outskirts cotton pickers work away in fields and dozens of trucks line the roads piled high with sacks bursting at the seams with raw cotton, while in the local market water melons and vegetables are on sale, and the hotels have bath tubs.
The Kabur river that runs through the city is not dry, yet hardly a river, more a small stream with a depth just above ankle height – exactly what one might expect following a hot and rainless summer.
But the Kabur is much lower than normal for early autumn. The Hasakah area only received 100 millimeters of rain this year, way below the annual average of 200-250mm. As a result an estimated 36,000 families from the Hasakah Governorate have been driven off the land. In neighboring Deir-e-Zour, dust storms caused by desertification were so bad this summer that on certain days people couldn't see more than two meters in front of them. Business ground to a halt and roads were closed off after being covered in sand.
From farming to urban poverty
Indeed, according to a United Nations report, an estimated 1.3 million people in Eastern Syria have been affected by climate change and drought, while 803,000 people have lost their livelihoods. The displaced are finding their way to the larger cities, living in tents and makeshift shacks, and forced to work as day laborers or even scavenge from the rubbish dumps on the edges of Damascus.
“Those that are really dependent, herders and small farmers, their livelihoods are being destroyed. If they are not already dependent on food aid, they will be,” said Jean-Marie Frentz, program manager of the economic cooperation section at the European Commission to Syria.
The paradox of places like Hasakah, deep in drought but yet still farming away, is that Syria has still not adapted its agricultural and farming policies in line with hydrological conditions. While crops fed by rainfall have failed, irrigation and the usage of dwindling groundwater reserves presents the illusion, a veritable mirage, of an oasis of productive farming land.
Water intensive watermelons on sale in drought ridden Hasakah.
For a country that has prided itself on agricultural self-sufficiency and its use of water resources – the back of the 500 Syrian pound note depicts the Assad Dam and fields being tilled – the drought is clearly bad news. Yet unlike the past, the Syrian government is admitting they have a problem.
“For the first time the government is really speaking about the issue, and realizes it is an emergency situation. In the past, there was a tendency to deny or say it is Syrian business and no need for international assistance,” said Frentz.
The UN, along with seven NGOs and the Syrian government, have established the Syrian Drought Response Team, requesting $53.9 million from international donors. The bulk of the money - $29 million - is for food aid, while $20 million is earmarked for supporting agriculture and livelihoods.
This is significantly more than asked for in 2008 by Damascus, for some $20 million, which Syria failed to raise from donors until earlier this year.
Conceding the scale of the drought has put Damascus in a tough spot, as it was “bad public relations for Syria to have to feel like Ethiopia, of presenting an image of people starving and sick children,” said Jihad Yazigi, editor of business publication Syria Report. “And it was quite a strange situation, as the same week the appeal was made [UAE real estate developer] Majid Al Futtaim announced the launch of a $1 billion project [just outside Damascus] in Yaafour. It says something about the new Syria,” he added.
The government is even attributing the economic slowdown in the country to the drought, despite agriculture accounting for an estimated 20 percent of gross domestic product and 10 percent of total exports.
Last year, as EXECUTIVE reported, Syria experienced its worst wheat and barley harvest in recent history, producing just two million tons of wheat and 90 percent less barley than in 2007. The target for wheat production in 2009 was back to former levels of 4.5 million tons, but year end projections estimate only 3.4 million tons.
Cotton pickers in Hasakah.
Importing food staples
The up-tick is due to average rainfall in certain areas of the country, particularly along the coastline, and from better irrigation usage. However, in areas reliant on rainfall in the northeast and east there was almost zero production, said Dr Abdullah Droubi, director of Water Resources at the Arab League's Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands in Damascus.
As a result, the Syrian government has boosted its imports of wheat by 300,000 tones to 1.5 million tones this year to boost its reserves, crucial for keeping the populace placated via flour subsidies.
Such a shortfall in agricultural output is forcing the government to rethink how water is allocated, with agriculture accounting for 90 percent of water usage. “The government is looking over the next decade to reduce this figure by 30 percent through new irrigation techniques,” said Droubi, while the Agriculture Ministry is studying a plan to reduce cotton cultivation by 20 to 30 percent from the current one million tones per year.
A shift from heavy usage of groundwater reserves is also needed, said Frentz.
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Source: Syrian Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform; UN
No master water plan
“The general trend is that groundwater levels are falling considerably every year. In rural Damascus there has been a six meter per year drop, while in the Homs area the drop in groundwater levels ranges from 12-35 meters a year, so this is very worrying indeed and clearly not a sustainable model.”
But with no master water plan, and a lack of coordination between government bodies, coming up with viable solutions is problematic.
“Water is a very fragmented sector with many actors. For instance, the ministries of construction, agriculture, environment and local administration all cover different aspects of water. There needs to be an integrated water management policy, not a piece meal approach,” said Frentz.
Then there is the scale of the drought and climatic changes. As Droubi pointed out droughts are often cyclical, but without scientific data it is difficult to plan ahead. And for a country of 20 million people with 2.1 percent growth per annum, such data is essential to address the needs of a rapidly growing, and rapidly urbanizing population.
“We have to have a plan to combat desertification and study climate change, but there has been no research about the frequency of the drought,” said Droubi.
Photographs by George Haddad and Paul Cochrane.