Conflict and climate change ravage Syria’s agricultural heartland

At a government bakery in Hasaka, Syria, a faded image of former President Hafez al-Assad looms over the ageing machinery and clanging steel chains of the assembly line. The painting dates from long before the war, when this region of northeast Syria was still under government control.

Outside, a long line of families and disabled men wait for bags of subsidised flat bread, which sells at about one-quarter of the market price.

What is new at this bakery, the largest in the region, is the colour of the flour dumped into giant mixing bowls: It is now pale yellow instead of the traditional stark white.

“This is a new experiment we started three or four months ago,” said Media Sheko, a manager of the bakery. “To avoid bread shortages, we had to mix it with corn.”

In a region ravaged by the Islamic State group and armed conflict, prolonged drought and drying rivers have made stability even more precarious. Here, the normally abstract idea of climate change can be seen in the city’s daily bread.

The new recipe is not entirely welcome.

“We feed corn to chickens,” said Khider Shaban, 48, a grain farmer near the town of Al Shaddadi, where bare earth has replaced most of the wheat fields because of lack of water. “What are we — chickens?”

The prolonged drought in the region has been linked to climate change worldwide. But in northeast Syria, the country’s historic breadbasket, its effects have been compounded by more than a decade of war, a devastated economy, damaged infrastructure and increasing poverty, leaving a vulnerable society even more at risk of destabilisation.

Across Syria, the UN’s World Food Program reported last summer that almost half of the population did not have enough food, a figure expected to rise higher this year.

Many of the fields of red earth have been left fallow by farmers who can no longer afford to buy seeds, fertiliser or diesel to run water pumps to replace the low rainfall of previous years. The wheat they do grow is lower quality and sells for much less than before the current drought two years ago, according to farmers, government officials and aid organisations.

This semiautonomous breakaway region in northeastern Syria, desperate for cash and stable relations with Damascus, still sells much of its wheat crop to the Syrian government, leaving little for its own population.

And farmers who cannot afford to feed and water their animals are selling them off at cut-rate prices.

“This problem of climate change is combined with other problems, so it’s not just one thing,” said Matt Hall, a strategic analyst for Save the Children in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. “There’s a war, there are sanctions, the economy is devastated. And the region can’t pick up the slack by importing wheat because it no longer has the money.”

For thousands of years, the Euphrates River and its largest tributary, the Khabur River, which cuts through Hasaka province, nurtured some of the world’s earliest farming settlements. But the rivers have been drying up.

The US space agency NASA, which studies climate change, says the drought that began in 1998 is the worst that some parts of the Middle East have seen in nine centuries.

In northeast Syria, the drought has been particularly acute over the past two years. But lower than average rainfall is only part of the problem.

Turkey, which controls the region’s water supply from parts of northern Syria that it controls through proxy fighters, has been accused of reducing the flow to the area inhabited by the Kurds, whom it considers an enemy.

Since Turkey captured the Alouk water pumping station, the main water source for Hasaka province, in 2019, aid agencies say forces under its command have repeatedly shut down the pumps, putting about 1 million people at risk.

Turkey has denied the accusation, blaming outages on technical problems and the lack of electricity from a dam outside of its control.

Whatever the cause, UNICEF says the water supply has been disrupted at least 24 times since late 2019.

The effects of the drought are on vivid display in the small city of Al Shaddadi, 50 miles south of Hasaka. The Khabur River, which flows through the town and was so vital in ancient times that it is referred to in the Bible, has been reduced to puddles of murky water.

Muhammad Salih, a president of the municipality, said 70% of the farmers in the area left their fields fallow this year because it would cost more to grow crops than they would receive selling them.

The low level of the Khabur, which many farmers depend on to irrigate their fields, means they have to operate their diesel-powered pumps longer to get the same amount of water. And the cost of diesel fuel has soared, along with prices of other essentials, because of an economic embargo on the region by its neighbours, Turkey and the government-controlled part of Syria, and US economic sanctions against Syria, which also affect this region.

Salih also blamed Turkey for reducing the water supply at the Alouk pumping station.

“One day they open the water and 10 days they do not,” he said.

He estimated that 60% of the local population was now living under the poverty line. “Some people are eating just one meal a day,” he said.

“This climate change, this drought is affecting the entire world,” he said. “But here in the autonomous administration we don’t have the reserves to cope with it.”

The war against the Islamic State group left entire sections of Al Shaddadi in ruins. US-led airstrikes destroyed a large residential complex, water pumping stations, schools and bakeries used by the Islamic State group, according to local authorities. The main bakery and some schools have been rebuilt.

Farmers from the countryside drive motorcycles through dusty streets. Women with their faces covered by black niqabs walk past chickens few people can afford to buy anymore.

In the surrounding farmlands, thin stalks of wheat and barley in the few fields planted last fall are less than half their height in pre-drought years.

“We can only pray for God to send us rain,” said Shaban. He said that he had to sell his sheep two years ago at reduced prices because he could not afford feed or water.

“I had to make the choice to give water to my family for drinking or give it to the sheep,” he said.

On a neighbouring farm, Hassan al-Harwa, 39, said the high cost of feed meant his sheep were subsisting on straw mixed with a small amount of more nutritious barley instead of the higher-grain diet they used to consume.

“They should be fatter and healthier,” al-Harwa said. “When there was rain two years ago, we had enough milk to get milk and cheese but now it is barely enough for their lambs.”

Before, he said, each sheep could fetch about $200 in the market. Now they sell for $70 or less, he said, because they are skinnier and because few people can afford to buy them.

The next day, four of the lambs had died. Al-Harwa thought it was a virus but with no veterinarian it was hard to be sure.

Across the region, intense poverty and lack of opportunity have contributed to young men joining the Islamic State group.

“It’s one small piece of this large, disastrous puzzle,” said Hall. “The grievances that are exacerbated by climate change are the same ones that drive disillusionment and recruitment” by the Islamic State group.

The persistent drought has also been driving families from farms held for generations to the cities where there are more services but even less opportunity to make a living.

“The water is holding together many of these areas,” Hall said. “These agricultural communities are the social foundation for many areas. If you take away the agricultural capacity there is nothing holding these towns together.”

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