DAMASCUS // More than a million Syrians enduring the driest winter in decades are facing "disaster", a United Nations agriculture official has warned.
Syria's eastern "breadbasket" region has already suffered four consecutive years of drought and crop failure, forcing tens of thousands of farming families to abandon their land.
International aid agencies launched relief efforts last year, distributing food and drinking water to an impoverished and malnourished population.
But hopes that this winter's rainy season would bring needed respite are rapidly dwindling. Rainfall has been even lower than in the harsh drought years of 2007 to 2009.
"I'm really scared," Abdulla Tahir bin Yehia, head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Syria, said on Tuesday. "During the previous droughts, rain was far below average, but there was still some.
"This year, until now, zero; we've had nothing."
He said the absence of rain in the eastern regions until so late in December, traditionally the middle of Syria's wet season, was unprecedented and warned that farmers, unable to recover from the previous four years, could not tolerate another blow.
"If this year there is serious drought, it will be disaster, it will really be a disaster," Mr bin Yehia said. Steady rain in the next two weeks would limit the damage, he said, but it would still be too late for some. "It's a critical situation now. Farmers are counting down the hours and days before it gets too late for them to plant a crop."
There was heavy rain and snow in western Syria this month, so severe that ports were closed, roads cut off and homes flooded. But the rain scarcely made it out to the provinces of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hasika - known collectively as the Jazeera region.
The Jazeera region is instead struggling with dust storms thrown up by the strong winds. There were light showers in parts of Hasika, but nothing significant.
Mr bin Yehia said there was still a need for emergency assistance in parts of the Jazeera, and that he expected the FAO to extend its current aid programme for at least the next six months.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which has been leading aid efforts in the Jazeera, extended its emergency appeal in September.
Aid programmes have been hampered by a lack of money. UN relief projects this year received less than half of the requested funding. The FAO, which provided seed and animal fodder to 13,000 farmers too poor to buy their own, received only 15 per cent of the money it had sought.
"Our appeal was seriously underfunded and the problems we were trying to solve then are being repeated, in almost the same areas. It's the same people needing help," Mr bin Yehia said. The FAO had considered launching a new emergency appeal for 2011, he said, but had scrapped the idea because the response by international donors to the 2010 programme had been so poor.
In September, during a rare mission in Syria, Olivier de Schutter, a special rapporteur from the UN human rights council, said the limited international reaction to urgent aid programmes in the country had been unacceptable given that children of Syrian farmers were starving.
"In times of emergency, when lives may be irremediably broken, weeks cannot be lost in seeking assistance of donors," Mr de Schutter said.
His preliminary report, which was issued when he visited the area in September, concluded that 1.3 million people had felt the effects of the drought, with 800,000 severely affected. About 60,000 families had fled the countryside for urban centres, leaving 160 villages abandoned, he reported.
Farming areas close to the Euphrates River or with access to underground reservoirs have survived better than zones dependent solely on rain.
Rain-fed lands cover much of the Jazeera however, and are home to at least 50,000 families, according to UN estimates, including nomadic shepherds.
The latter were given a brief reprieve after three years of drought in the winter of 2009/2010, when rain fell and vegetation grew. Settled farmers were not so lucky, however, with temperature fluctuations and poorly distributed rain wiping out as much as 50 per cent of the wheat crop.
"We have had three years of drought, then this year there was crop failure, so if we have a drought again now, it will have been five awful years, one after the other," Mr bin Yehia said. He said that rather than ease in coming years, the situation in the Jazeera was likely to worsen.
"We need a long term recovery programme to run alongside emergency aid efforts," he said. "There have been repeated drought and rainfall distribution problems over the last five years and this will continue, if it's not aggravated even more."