x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Eastern Syria faces 'catastrophe'

Economists say the combination of economic reforms and water shortages has impoverished the region, leading to mass emigration.

Dead livestock by the road in the Hasika province of eastern Syria three months ago.
Dead livestock by the road in the Hasika province of eastern Syria three months ago.

DAMASCUS // Free market economic reforms have helped create a "catastrophe" in eastern regions of Syria, greatly exacerbating the effects of a devastating drought, according to leading critics of government policy. Speaking at a weekly meeting of the Syrian economics society, a group of high-profile academics said a decision to end fuel and seed subsidies just as the drought was at its peak had destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers.

In addition, the academics said subsequent efforts by the authorities to mitigate the impacts of severe water shortages had come too late, been insufficient and been hampered by corruption. According to the United Nations, 1.3 million people in the eastern region of Syria have been directly affected by the drought. The World Food Programme (WFP) is currently implementing a second emergency operation in the area, handing out aid packages to families who have been surviving on little more than tea and bread for months.

Malnutrition is rife in the region and rising, UN officials say, one describing the crisis as "very, very serious and persistent". The WFP operation was supposed to begin last month but was delayed because international donors were late in supplying funds. As it is, the WFP has received only US$5.3 million (Dh19.46m), a quarter of what it says is necessary to feed those suffering from serious malnourishment.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families have already fled their land in Hasika, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces, joining the pool of unemployed in already overcrowded cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Many displaced families live in squalid camps. "I think the government is late in responding to this," said Riyad al Shayif, one of the key speakers at the economic society meeting one week ago today. "They decided to help in November 2008 after the liberalisation of fuel prices but it was too late.

"The farmers' union chief in Hasika has called for farmers to be freed from debts and to be financed with new loans but that has not happened. "The government has made decisions [to mitigate the drought] but there has been no implementation on the ground." Mr al Shayif said years of neglect of the eastern region had further undermined its ability to withstand the environmental shock, the worst drought it has suffered in more than four decades.

"The Jazeera region is very important for Syria, yet we find no real focus from the government on it," he told the meeting. "We have a high poverty rate, low healthcare level, high illiteracy rate, a shortage of industry and infrastructure and no focus on the environment, no investment in the tourism sector." In recent years the central government has launched a series of campaigns to diversify the region's economy away from a total reliance on agriculture and dwindling oil supplies, plans often supported by the international community.

Emergency measures have also been implemented, including a rescheduling of farmers' debts, cash grants to villages and a rise in the government price paid to farmers for wheat. These measures had not worked as well as hoped and a new blueprint for the area was needed, according to Mr al Shayif. "We need to put in specific programmes and the government should ensure those plans are followed up," he said.

Another of the speakers, Issam Danoon, a senior engineer working with the countryside development project, a UN-supported group affiliated to the Syrian ministry of agriculture, said millions of dollars in aid and soft loans had been invested in the eastern region since 2002. He was heckled by some members of the audience, who asked where the money had gone, a reference to corruption, which remains rife in Syria despite repeated anti-corruption drives.

Funding from the Syrian government and international donors had failed to stop the suffering of ordinary people, Mr Danoon said. He criticised the wave of new private companies that have opened for business in Syria, saying they had done nothing to help the country face the crisis. "The people have no alternative to agriculture and their children have no education so they have no choices," he said. "There is no money, no foreign investment, no new projects, no opportunities for people.

"We find the private banks work in the wealthy areas, the cities. Only IFAD [the international fund for agricultural development, a UN agency] is there to finance these families." It was wrong to blame the region's woes on a recent drought, he said. "The problem is not the lack of water. It's about rationalising our management of water resources. There is a lot of water. We have to manage it." According to figures presented at the Syrian economics society meeting, 70 per cent of livestock in the Jazeera region had been wiped out as a result of the crisis, with farmers unable to grow animal fodder. Wheat output fell to 1.3 million tonnes in 2008, down from 2.4 million tonnes the year before.

Falling production of wheat and other crops had hit the wider economy, experts at the meeting agreed, playing a role in a slowed national growth rate. Daowd Haido, an economics professor from the Jazeera, said he had spoken to a top Syrian health official about getting medical aid to the worst affected people. "He told me 'we have to feed people first, then we can worry about getting them medicine'," Mr Haido recounted. "He said the situation is bad, that there is no health care, no education, no infrastructure and now respiratory diseases are spreading."

Muneer Hamash, one of Syria's most renowned advocates of socialist economics, insisted drought had only highlighted other problems that were already in place. "We are not talking about drought, we are talking about the social effects of the Syrian economic team," he said in remarks at the meeting. "On nine previous occasions we had droughts, why didn't we have emigration like this before? It's very dangerous. It's a social catastrophe. This is the social effects of the policy team. The policy team doesn't feel it has made a mistake. It's a problem.

"Those who made mistakes should resign. The situation is very bad. We see it particularly in the Jazeera. 30 per cent of the population has emigrated. "We have reached a miserable situation because of economic policies not only because of drought." Advocates of the free-market reforms being followed by the Syrian government insist the decades of heavy subsidisation was leading the country into bankruptcy and had to be changed urgently, a view supported by the International Monetary Fund and European Union advisers.

They also point to continued strong national economic growth - at a time when many bigger nations were in recession - as a vindication of their continued reform programme. psands@thenational.ae