x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Through the cracks

World Sarah Birke reports from Syria, where drought is inexorably depopulating much of the countryside.

Experts attribute Syria's drought to a combination of climate change, man-made desertification and a lack of irrigation - some of which is blamed on official mismanagement.
Experts attribute Syria's drought to a combination of climate change, man-made desertification and a lack of irrigation - some of which is blamed on official mismanagement.

Sarah Birke reports from Syria, where drought is inexorably depopulating much of the countryside. In the dusty settlement of Ghazal on the outskirts of Damascus, Nofra al Deen points to a large factory across a patch of wasteland from where he lives. This is his new place of work, he tells me. Until drought forced him to move to the city a few months ago, Nofra lived in the farming town of Qamishle, on the Syrian border with Turkey. Now he works nights in the factory packing flavoured drink powder.

Working shifts from 9pm to 9am brings home just 5,000 Syrian Pounds (about Dh400) per month. His wife works too now, much to his shame, he says, earning the family an extra 4,500 SYP per month in day shifts at the same factory. Between them they earn just about enough to support themselves, his parents and their four young children - although that fragile economic equilibrium was upset recently when their youngest son needed an eye operation, which required them to rack up debts.

Nofra's precarious situation is far from unique. Syria's multiyear drought has caused an unprecedented migration out of the rural northeastern and eastern regions of the country. As village economies grind to a halt, herders and farmers have packed in for the cities, where, like Nofra, they find traction in only the most exploitative sectors of the labour market. Desperate for money and with little but agricultural skills to offer, many have been forced to work in factories or sell goods on the street. Others are worse off, living in tent camps and relying on aid alone. Victims of a quiet devastation, they are no better off than another, better-known group of refugees in Syria - those who have flooded across the border to escape the more spectacular violence in Iraq.

Because I was unlikely to find my way to Ghazal alone, Nofra met me in central Damascus on a clear sunny morning, his daughter clinging shyly to his arm. During the minibus journey, which became increasingly uncomfortable and dusty as the road devolved into a collection of potholes, he explained that his family had moved to the city when life in the drought zone became untenable. "We used to be comfortably off," he said. "We grew wheat and I worked as a mechanic on the farm vehicles. But over the years that changed to the point that we had no choice but to leave. There was nothing left for us there."

When we arrived in Ghazal, the low-rise concrete blocks of houses seemed cold and hostile compared to other parts of Damascus. Children in torn clothes stood around in the street and doorways; traders plying their wares eyed us suspiciously as we made towards Nofra's home. Many of the families here also came from Qamishle and knew each other from their former lives in the countryside. But Nofra confided that he didn't like walk to alone here at night; poverty had driven some of his fellow migrants to crime.

In the centre of the street we passed a water tanker surrounded by people carrying buckets and containers, jostling with one another. "There is no water supply here, so we have to pay for it at a high price," said Nofra. "It is just an extra expense." When we reached the building, I followed Nofra and his daughter upstairs to the first floor and into one of their three grey-walled, dark rooms, which was entirely empty but for a few cushions that served the dual role of sofa and bed. Despite several refusals, I was served coffee. Then Nofra's father, Hassan Hami Hami, 73, took over recounting the family's tale. A wheat farmer in Qamishle, he had made the decision to leave after several years of failed crops. He sent Nofra ahead to find a place for the family just before the summer.

The crop failures started three years ago when the "rain became very little", Hassan told me, although the quality of production had been declining for several years beforehand. Without agricultural revenues, the economy of the town seized up, and people started leaving in droves. As the population dwindled, Nofra's work as a mechanic trickled away. "The earth and the economy went together," said Hassan.

The old man tried to supplement the family's income by selling plastic from a wheelbarrow, but met with little success. Meanwhile the cost of living rose as more and more necessities became scarce. Soon well owners turned off their diesel pumps, and even drinking water came at a premium. In every way, Qamishle was parched. In July the Syrian Ministry for Agriculture and Agrarian Reform estimated that 40,000 to 60,000 families had been driven from their homes by drought, with 35,000 of them coming from the worst-affected Hassakeh region alone. By contrast, the UN estimates that, over the past three years, at least 200,000 Syrian farmers and their families have abandoned their homes for the cities - primarily Damascus, but also Aleppo, Homs and elsewhere.

Yet the migrations are happening too fast and at too high a volume for anyone to know their true scale. With more Syrians fleeing the countryside with each passing week, the four-month old Ministry of Agriculture estimate is already out of date - and was probably grossly undershot in the first place; poor data has generally marred the crisis. Perhaps as a result, Syria's drought has received little aid or attention compared to the those in India and Iraq.

Experts attribute the drought to a combination of climate change, man-made desertification and a lack of irrigation - some of which is blamed on official mismanagement. River water levels have been reduced by dam-building in Turkey, and some say that unsustainable farming methods have depleted underground aquifers. Those methods were encouraged by Syrian agricultural policies designed to ensure that the country would not be dependent on food imports. The approach has backfired dreadfully: wheat production now stands at just 55 per cent of the pre-drought norm, and barley production has been seriously affected as well. For the first time ever, Syria's grain reserves have run out.

The effects of the drought have not been limited to migration. According to the UN, up to 60 per cent of Syria's land mass and 1.3 million people have been affected in some way, out of a total population of 22 million. Just over 800,000 of those have lost their livelihoods. Disease has been on the rise as people turn to unsafe sources of water; school dropout rates in the rural areas have increased as people move. And as Nofra and Hassan have observed among their displaced neighbours in Ghazal, social cohesion has eroded. "No one helps anyone out any more," said Hassan. "This is not the usual way of life in this country."

Walking around the neighbourhood in the late afternoon, Hassan points out several homes. "They are all from Qamishle," he says. The utter depopulation of his hometown seems inexorable: "soon there will be no one left." In Qamishle, many of these people owned cars, land and large numbers of sheep; now they are living hand to mouth. Worse, Nofra and his family said they have received no help and suggested that government and aid-agency relief efforts have been insufficient to the scope of the problem.

The drought diaspora has carried some migrants outside of Syria altogether. Nofra's cousins moved to Jordan; other victims have gone to Beirut, where there is more hope of finding skilled jobs than in Damascus. For his part, Nofra is working overtime at the factory to pay off his son's operation and to make sure his daughters have supplies for school. At 37 SYP (Dh3) per hour, it will take a while. Hassan, meanwhile, sits at home, angry and frustrated - angry that no one did enough to stop the disaster and that help has been so hard to come by; frustrated that, at 73, he has had to leave his home and become a burden on his children. Hassan aims to return to Qamishle, but he doubts very much he will do so before the end of his days. "I pray God will bring rain," he said. "We can't go back unless something changes."

Sarah Birke is a journalist based in Damascus who specialises in social and humanitarian stories from Syria.