From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” According to a special case study from last year’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR), of the most vulnerable Syrians dependent on agriculture, particularly in the northeast governorate of Hassakeh (but also in the south), “nearly 75 percent … suffered total crop failure.” Herders in the northeast lost around 85% of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people.
The human and economic costs are enormous. In 2009, the UN and IFRC reported that over 800,000 Syrians had lost their entire livelihood as a result of the droughts. By 2011, the aforementioned GAR report estimated that the number of Syrians who were left extremely “food insecure” by the droughts sat at about one million. The number of people driven into extreme poverty is even worse, with a UN report from last year estimating two to three million people affected.
This has led to a massive exodus of farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the countryside to the cities. Last January, it was reported that crop failures (particularly the Halaby pepper) just in the farming villages around the city of Aleppo, had led “200,000 rural villagers to leave for the cities.” In October 2010, the New York Times highlighted a UN estimate that 50,000 families migrated from rural areas just that year, “on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled in earlier years.” In context of Syrian cities coping with influxes of Iraqi refugees since the U.S. invasion in 2003, this has placed additional strains and tensions on an already stressed and disenfranchised population. . . .
A NOAA study published last October in the Journal of Climate found strong and observable evidence that the recent prolonged period of drought in the Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East is linked to climate change. On top of this, the study also found worrying agreement between observed climate impacts, and future projections from climate models. A recent model of climate change impacts on Syria conducted by IFPRI, for example, projects that if current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions continue, yields of rainfed crops in the country may decline “between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050.”
This problem has been compounded by poor governance. The al-Assad regime has, by most accounts except their own, criminally combined mismanagement and neglect of Syria’s natural resources, which have contributed to water shortages and land desertification. Based on short-term assessments during years of relative plenty, the government has heavily subsidized water-intensive wheat and cotton farming, and encouraged inefficient irrigation techniques. In the face of both climate and human-induced water shortages, farmers have sought to increase supply by turning to the country’s groundwater resources, with Syria’s National Agricultural Policy Center reporting an increase in wells tapping aquifers from “just over 135,000 in 1999 to more than 213,000 in 2007.” This pumping “has caused groundwater levels to plummet in many parts of the country, and raised significant concerns about the water quality in remaining aquifer stocks.”
On top of this, the over-grazing of land and a rapidly growing population have compounded the land desertification process. As previously fertile lands turn to dust, farmers and herders have had no choice but to move elsewhere, starve, or demand change. . . .
From Climate Progress, "Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest"
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An October 2010 report from the New York Times gives additional detail on the scale of Syria's (and Iraq's) water shortages. Reporting from Al Raqqah, Syria, a town on the Euphrates River, Robert F. Worth noted that the farmlands north and east of the town were once the breadbasket of the region:
Now, after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent — including much of neighboring Iraq — appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say. Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.
“I had 400 acres of wheat, and now it’s all desert,” said Ahmed Abdullah, 48, a farmer who is living in a ragged burlap and plastic tent here with his wife and 12 children alongside many other migrants. “We were forced to flee. Now we are at less than zero — no money, no job, no hope.”
The collapse of farmlands here — which is as much a matter of human mismanagement as of drought — has become a dire economic challenge and a rising security concern for the Syrian and Iraqi governments, which are growing far more dependent on other countries for food and water. Syria, which once prided itself on its self-sufficiency and even exported wheat, is now quietly importing it in ever larger amounts. The country’s total water resources dropped by half between 2002 and 2008, partly through waste and overuse, scientists and water engineers say.
For Syria, which is running out of oil reserves and struggling to draw foreign investment, the farming crisis is an added vulnerability in part because it is taking place in the area where its restive Kurdish minority is centered. Iraq, devastated by war, is now facing a water crisis in both the north and the south that may be unprecedented in its history. Both countries have complained about reduced flow on the Euphrates, thanks to massive upriver dam projects in Turkey that are likely to generate more tension as the water crisis worsens.
The four-year drought in Syria has pushed two million to three million people into extreme poverty, according to a survey completed here this month by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. Herders in the country’s northeast have lost 85 percent of their livestock, and at least 1.3 million people have been affected, he reported. . . .
Robert F. Worth, "Earth is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived," New York Times, October 13, 2010