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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 Dania AkkadContributor / September 18, 2009

Deraa, Syria

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.

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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.

"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.

Mass emigration compounds Iraqi refugee crowding

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.