Severe drought affects 1.3 million in Syria

More than 800,000 people have lost their livelihoods in a four-year dry spell exacerbated by climate change and rising food prices. Almost half of them live in urban makeshift camps.

By , Contributor

The acute drought that has driven an estimated 300,000 Syrian farmers, herders, and their families to abandon home for makeshift urban camps may not be the worst in the region's history; the Fertile Crescent has often experienced cycles of drought.

But now climate change, an exploitation of water resources, and higher food prices brought about by the global financial crisis have all severely sharpened the impact of this dry spell, now in its fourth year. The numbers of Syrians affected – an estimated 1.3 million, 803,000 of whom have entirely lost their livelihoods – point to a serious humanitarian crisis.

With Syria's population expected to triple by 2025, the severity of the drought presents yet another challenge for a leadership isolated internationally and struggling at home to maintain a broken state system while slowly introducing capitalism.

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"It's going to underline for the everyday person the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of the Syrian state," says Joshua Landis, codirector of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies.

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Shams Asa Mousa is already too familiar with those.

For more generations than she can remember, her family has grown wheat in Syria's Euphrates river valley. But as a result of the drought, they left their home in the eastern part of the country. Now, she and most of her 10 children sit idle in a tent made of wheat sacks outside of the southern city of Deraa near the Jordanian border, swatting flies, hundreds of miles away from their family home.

The mass migration toward Syria's cities, already overwhelmed with Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, is only the most urgent of the drought's consequences, which also include wide-spread malnutrition, increased illness, and school dropout rates, according to a recent United Nations report.

Asa Mousa's family has been living at the camp for three months without running water and only spurts of stolen electricity, subsisting on bread, rice, yoghurt and sugared tea.

She says no tangible help has come except for a government official who offered the family 20 percent of their Deraa income to return home. The family declined the offer.

"We are totally forgotten," says Asa Mousa. "Sometimes we feel like no one knows we are here."

Aid to Syria a hard sell

The Syrian government and aid agencies have had trouble securing international donor funding to assist herders and farmers, due in part to Syria's bad rap in the West as well as its repressive rules on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at home.

Last October, the United Nations appealed to donors for $20 million dollars in drought-relief aid for Syria, but it has only received $4 million to date.

Without the necessary funding, drought problems accumulated, necessitating even more money. Last month, the UN appealed again, this time for $52.9 million, an amount that would only address the needs of 300,000 drought victims, according to the UN plan.

Aid agency representatives attribute the lack of funding to an appeal that came too late, long after the majority of funds had been pledged last year. Syria, too, is a hard sell.

"We don't have typhoons. We don't have earthquakes. Usually, the country is hosting, not suffering from, the crisis" at hand, says Mostafa Shbib of the UN Development Program's Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Landis, however, says that the poor fundraising is a result of the "demonization" of Syria in the West and Syria's reluctance to welcome NGOs.

"When you don't let NGOs have free reign, they don't go back and lobby in Brussels or Washington or Geneva, so there isn't knowledge out there," he says.

Drought aids urgency to improving ties with Turkey

In addition to prompting a reconsideration of the country's agriculture practices, which include a high volume of illegal well-drilling and inefficient irrigation, the drought has highlighted the importance of Syria's growing diplomatic ties upstream with Turkey, says Prof. Landis.

A Sept. 3 meeting in Istanbul between representatives of both countries and Iraq failed to produce any firm details about the water Turkey had promised to release down the Euphrates, along which it has built several dams in the past 20 years.

But with otherwise improving relations there is "a lot of hope that the issue will be hammered out," Prof. Landis says.

"Ultimately, Syria needs Turkey," he said. "The fact is that Turkey is a very important ally. It has weight with Israel, Europe and America."

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