Conflict and climate change are ravaging Syria’s agricultural heartland

HASAKA, Syria – At a government bakery in Hasaka, Syria, a faded image of former President Hafez al-Assad hangs over the aging machinery and clanging steel chains of the assembly line. The painting dates from well 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 subsidized flatbread, which sells for about a quarter of the market price.

What’s new at this bakery, the largest in the region, is the color of the flour dumped into giant mixing bowls: it’s now a pale yellow instead of the traditional pure white.

“It’s a new experience that we started three or four months ago,” said Media Sheko, a bakery manager. “To avoid bread shortages, we had to mix it with corn.”

In a region ravaged by the Islamic State and armed conflicts, the prolonged drought and the drying up of rivers have made stability even more precarious. Here, the normally abstract idea of ​​climate change finds its way into the city’s daily bread.

The new recipe is not entirely welcome.

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

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 growing poverty, leaving a vulnerable society even more exposed to the risk of destabilization.

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

Many fields of red soil have been left fallow by farmers who can no longer afford to buy seeds, fertilizers or diesel to run water pumps to replace poor rainfall in previous years. The wheat they are growing is of lower quality and selling for far less than before the current drought two years ago, farmers, government officials and aid organizations say.

This semi-autonomous breakaway region in northeast 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 people.

And farmers who cannot afford to feed and water their animals sell them at reduced prices.

“This climate change issue is combined with other issues, so it’s not just one thing,” said Matt Hall, strategic analyst for Save the Children in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. “There is a war, there are sanctions, the economy is devastated. And the region cannot take over by importing wheat because it has no more money.

For thousands of years, the Euphrates River and its largest tributary, the Khabur River, which flows through Hasaka Province, supported some of the world’s earliest agricultural settlements. But the rivers dried up.

The US space agency NASA, which studies climate change, says the drought that began in 1998 is the worst 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 below average rainfall is only part of the problem.

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

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

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

Whatever the cause, UNICEF says the water supply has been interrupted at least 24 times since the end of 2019.

The effects of the drought are clearly visible in the small town of Al Shaddadi, 80 km south of Hasaka. The Khabur River, which runs through the city and was so vital in ancient times that it is mentioned in the Bible, has been reduced to murky puddles.

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

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

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

“One day they turn on the water and 10 days they don’t,” he said.

He estimated that 60% of the local population now lived below the poverty line. “Some people only eat one meal a day,” he said.

“This climate change, this drought is affecting the whole world,” he said. “But here in the self-government we don’t have the reserves to deal with it.”

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

Countryside farmers ride motorbikes through dusty streets. Women with their faces covered in black niqabs walk past chickens few can afford.

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

“We can only pray for God to send us rain,” said Mr. Shaban, the wheat farmer. He said he had to sell his sheep two years ago at a discount because he could not afford food or water.

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

At a nearby 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 more grain-rich diet they were consuming before.

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

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

The next day, four of the lambs were dead. Mr al-Harwa thought it was a virus, but without a vet it was hard to be sure.

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

“It’s a small piece of this big disastrous puzzle,” said Save the Children’s Mr Hall. “The grievances that are exacerbated by climate change are the same ones that drive disillusionment and recruitment” by ISIS.

Persistent drought has also driven families from farms owned for generations to cities where there are more services but even fewer opportunities to earn a living.

“Water holds many of these areas together,” Hall said. “These farming communities are the social foundation of many regions. If you take away the farming capacity, there’s nothing holding those towns together.

Sangar Khalil contributed report.

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