x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Refugees because the rains never came

As Syria's rivers dry up thousands of families face a fight for survival in squalid encampments.

Drought refugees from eastern Syria living in tents made from blankets in Ghoota, half an hour east of Damascus.
Drought refugees from eastern Syria living in tents made from blankets in Ghoota, half an hour east of Damascus.

Damascus // On a small triangle of dirt, wedged between two roads half-an-hour's drive east from central Damascus, is a squalid encampment, home to some 50 people. They live in tents made from thin blankets sewn together. There is no clean water, the air is thick with the smell of human and animal waste; piles of rubbish burn near by. It is unmistakably a scene of desperate, overwhelming poverty.

Iraq may blame Syria, along with Turkey, for its water crisis, but Syrians are struggling with severe problems of their own. The men, women and children of the camp, in an area named Ghoota, have been living there for more than a year, forced to flee from their land in the once lush farming areas around the Khabur River, out in the desert regions near Syria's border with Iraq. They are drought refugees, and they are not alone.

According to the UN, over the past three years 250,000 Syrian farmers and their families have abandoned their homes and villages, moving to cities in search of work. The UN estimates that 60 per cent of Syrian land and 1.3 million people have been affected by severe water shortages. Malnutrition in the Hasakah region, bordering Iraq, and in Deir Ezzor, on the Euphrates, has soared. Ahmed al Mohammed and his family used to live in the village of Al Shaddadeh, where they own 100 donums (40 hectares) of land on the Khabur that, six years ago, afforded them a life of some luxury. With an annual income of up to £1 million Syrian (Dh80,000), they had two cars, a pick-up truck and a tractor. All of the children were educated; Ahmed passed his high-school diploma and one of his brothers went to university to study law.

Two years ago they fled their farm and have since been living in the village of Jaleen, on the Syria-Jordan border near Dara'a, where they barely scrape a living as day labourers. "We used to have a good life, we lived like sheikhs," says Mr al Mohammad, 28. "But things slowly got worse, the river dried up, the rains stopped. We sold one car, then the next, then the tractor. When there was nothing else worth selling, we loaded ourselves into our truck and left. There was no other choice.

"I remember the day we locked the door on our house in al Shaddadeh and left, my mother cried. We sat in the back of the truck, me with my mother and sisters, and we drove for 14 hours to get to Dara'a. "People in other cars on the road were staring at us, as if we were homeless, or refugees, not Syrian citizens. I realise now that's what we were, we had become refugees in our own country." The family were not warmly received in Jaleen, according to Mr al Mohammad. They were pushed to the outskirts, where they put up a tent. Although they eventually found a more permanent place to stay, they are still living a hand-to-mouth existence.

"All of us have to work," says Mr al Mohammad. "My mother and sister, my brothers, we all work on the ground as farm labourers. My brother's children work with us too, they are nine and 12 years old and should be in school, but there is no room for that. Between us we make about £1,500 (Dh120) a day, and sometimes we get to keep some vegetables from the farm." There are at least 60 refugee families from the Hasakeh region living in Jaleen, under the same circumstances, says Mr al Mohammad. Children not working on the farms frequently scavenge, looking for old bread to eat, or plastic and iron to sell. There are also reports of women turning to prostitution to supplement the £200 a day they can earn as fruit pickers or packers.

Of al Shaddadeh, Mr al Mohammad says: "The village is almost empty now. Only 10 per cent of the people have stayed, the very old and a few of the younger ones who are left behind to look after them. "There is no water in the river, nothing. And for two years there has been no rain. If there is rain, you can farm enough to survive, but even that has been impossible. Our land is now desert, there's no grass, even the sheep cannot eat from it."

By his estimate, 80 to 90 per cent of the population along a 150km stretch of the Khabur have abandoned their homes and moved to the cities. The situation facing Syria is not dissimilar to that of 1930s America, when the central prairies turned to dust as a result of drought and over-intensive farming, creating a tidal wave of refugees who moved to wealthier states, only to find living conditions as harsh as those they had left. Working as fruit pickers and day labourers, hundreds of thousands of displaced families struggled to survive on starvation wages, a disaster captured by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

Syria's own modern-day farming crisis and wave of migration also have a combination of natural and man-made causes. The past two years have brought with them the worst drought in decades, at a time when river water levels have been drastically reduced by an extensive dam-building programme in neighbouring Turkey, upstream on the Euphrates. The Khabur, which used to irrigate hundreds of productive farms - including those of Ahmed al Mohammad's family - is a tributary of the Euphrates.

Compounding the crisis, Syrian agricultural policies - for the past two decades designed to ensure the country was not dependent on foreign food imports - have encouraged unsustainable farming practices. Too much water has been drawn from underground aquifers as farmers tried to hit wheat production targets, encouraged by subsidies to abandon traditional crop rotation. And as agricultural production and population have increased, so has water consumption - uncontrollably. Half of Syria's 420,000 ground wells are thought to have been dug illegally. Groundwater supplies, which take decades to recover, have been heavily depleted. That, coupled with the lack of rain, now means wheat output has fallen short of production goals. Syria has for the first time in years become an importer of wheat.

The government has said it is devising an agriculture disaster fund but few details have been released and no policy changes have been implemented. In co-operation with the UN, the Syrian authorities are also working on a new agriculture strategy that stresses better water management and that will probably recommend a change in the nation's crop balance. Meanwhile, Syria has drawn on international aid to help mitigate the effects of the drought. The World Food Programme has been handing out emergency packages to try to prevent burgeoning malnutrition rates and stem the flow of rural to urban migration. A total of 200,000 people, mainly farming families, are receiving its assistance.

But the aid has been criticised as insufficient by many of those receiving it. In al Qusair, a mainly Christian area south of Homs, families from the drought-hit eastern areas work in fruit orchards. Ali al Issa, a 60-year-old farmer, migrated from Saem in the eastern deserts with his wife, two daughters and three sons. "My family go to work at 5am and get back at 4pm, picking fruit," he says. Combined they typically earn less than £700 Syrian a day. "Farmers here look at us as a supply of cheap labour, they pay less for workers and make good profits."

The immigration has also brought with it social tensions, with some local residents saying the new arrivals have backward attitudes. Immigrant youths have been accused of sexually harassing local girls. Back in Ghoota, east of the Syrian capital, the residents of the expanding tent communities also survive as day labourers. The women and children work picking and packing fruit. The men typically head into the city each morning, hoping to get work on construction sites. Grinding poverty and uncertainty are beginning to take their toll, as are the kind of incidents that occur in shanty towns; a group of tents was recently destroyed in an electrical fire, caused by faulty wiring after families illegally tapped into the high-voltage mains supply.

One resident, who refused to give his name, angrily dismisses suggestions that the Syrian government or international community are not doing enough to help him and the hundreds of thousands like him. "Let me tell you this," he says, gesturing to the mud floor of a tent and a crowd of dirty children near by. "We are all very happy here. Our lives are perfect, we want for nothing. How could I be happier?"

psands@thenational.ae