A severe shortage of rainfall that has lasted more than three years has crippled agriculture in northeastern Syria, where residents say conditions are still deteriorating in the absence of economic alternatives and an adequate government response.
People’s living conditions in the area are dire, said Ahmad al-Salem, an agricultural engineer who lives in a village close to the town of Qamishli.
He said that most of his fellow villagers have moved to Damascus or other big cities looking for new sources of income, many ending up with difficult labouring work.
“Some rely on smuggling cigarettes and electrical goods between Syria and Iraq and sometimes work in trafficking sheep and diesel,” he said. “The women raise chickens and live from selling eggs.”
Today, many northeastern villages are half-deserted with closed-down schools and abandoned houses and land.
Traditionally, the northeastern provinces, a region rich in rivers, contained some of Syria’s most fertile agricultural lands where wheat, cotton, vegetables and fruits have been grown.
“Agriculture is the backbone of the economy here,” said an official at the ministry of agriculture, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He added that the lack of rainfall affected the whole national economy since 30 per cent of Syrian agricultural land is in the northeastern Jazeera province.
Observers say that the drought, coupled with poor irrigation strategies, has led to the impoverishment and displacement of large numbers of the area’s inhabitants.
Some 1.3 million people have been affected by the disaster, of whom 800,000 have lost almost all of their livelihoods and face extreme hardship, according to the Syrian government and United Nations assessment missions.
Migration out of the affected areas has increased substantially, with estimates indicating that between 40,000 and 60,000 families have relocated, the UN says.
Like many people in Jazeera, Mohamad al-Sheikh, his wife and three daughters survive on the small remittance sent by his two sons who work in a factory in Damascus.
Although Sheikh, 60, owns farmland in the small town of Tal Hamis, very little grows since the drought hit the area.
“I had a piece of good agricultural land but the scarcity of rainfall made it barren,” he said, adding that without the monthly remittance of 5,000 Syrian liras (110 US dollars), his family would “probably succumb to illness and hunger”.
In August, the Syrian government and international aid organisations raised the alarm and launched an urgent programme to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the region and help raise resilience to the drought.
The response plan sought to muster 52.9 million dollars to provide food assistance as well as seeds and animal feed for farmers up to mid-2010, hoping that by then new crops would help improve food security.
But, the much-needed funds seem to be slow to arrive in the region. Last year, media reports said that the UN had difficulty gathering emergency funds for drought victims in Syria because of the country’s tense diplomatic relations with other nations.
A UN official in Damascus told the Financial Times in October that donors do not give money readily to Syria for political reasons and described the situation in Jazeera as an “ongoing disaster”.
As part of the response plan, the United Nations World Food Programme, WFP, has a project to provide foodstuff to the area with a budget of 22 million dollars, running to July 2010, the time of the next harvest.
The project targets around 300,000 beneficiaries in the northeastern regions of al-Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hasakeh.
The WFP said in a statement this week that it hoped to start distributing food under the programme by late January and it would last until funds run out.
However, it had raised only 5.3 million dollars or about a quarter of the budgeted amount, which had come from Australia, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and UN central funds. It hoped to secure further funds from the European Union and the United States.
It did not respond to a request for comment on why more countries had not pledged funds.
Muhannad Hadi, WFP Syria representative, said in a statement, “The majority of the affected population is facing extreme hardship and have exhausted all coping mechanism. WFP has designed a new emergency operation to tackle nutritional deficiency among the most vulnerable drought-affected population with particular attention to women and children under five.”
Some local officials say, however, that providing food is not enough to meet the needs of the people in the drought-hit regions of Syria.
“It is no exaggeration to say that people are dying from hunger here,” said an official of the ruling Baath party from a village in the Jazeera area.
The local authorities have repeatedly told the central government of the gravity of the situation but to no avail, he added on condition of anonymity.
“Food baskets are not enough especially because corruption is rife and some of the food gets stolen,” he said.
In June, the government started distributing food packages containing flour, sugar, oil and other commodities to crisis-stricken families.
Poverty is also affecting health and education.
One physician working with a Syrian aid organisation said medical facilities available in northeastern villages are scarce. He added that most people cannot afford to go to private clinics and are resorting to crowded governmental dispensaries where medical services are poor.
Another teacher from the town of Tal Hamis said the number of children dropping out of school is on the rise and poverty has pushed many parents to send their children out to work.
He recounted how one of his students could not do his homework because his father had told him he did not have money to buy him a new exercise book.
Local critics say that the government had failed to carry out a sustainable development plan for the northeastern region, which needs more industrial and tourism investments.
Some said that the region could benefit from the building of new factories to take advantage of its wealth of raw materials like oil, natural gas, and sulphur.
One official from the directorate of tourism said Jazeera was “full of archaeological sites of importance” and he said the state should invest in the tourism sector to attract more visitors to the region.
By an IWPR-trained reporter (SB No. 90, 20-Jan-10)
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