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Syrian economy risks wilting in severe drought

February 17, 2010

Full article at the Financial Times

As one farmer balances skilfully on a plank of wood being drawn by a horse across a small patch of earth, others stand nearby talking about the weather.

The scene has been replicated for centuries in Syria’s semi-arid hills and valleys, where farmers harvest crops, tend fruit trees and herd sheep and goats. More recently though the conversations, punctuated by glances and gestures towards the heavens, have taken on added urgency as the nation grapples with a three-year drought that experts describe as the worst for four decades.

“It’s getting harder and harder every year,” says Turki Hussein Yezbak, one of the farmers.

The impact has been felt across the country, with 1.3m people from the rural east and north-east “drastically affected” and 40,000-60,000 families forced to migrate in search of alternative employment, putting extra pressures on urban areas, says a UN report released in September.

Officials play down the effects of the drought, citing recent rains to suggest the problem has diminished. But “references to climate change have entered the regime’s narrative” for the first time, says a western diplomat.

Lack of water is a problem that blights the Middle East, and by 2050 per capita water availability is expected to fall by half, says the World Bank.

In Syria , about 90 per cent of water is used in the agriculture sector, which is central to the economy and accounts for about 20 per cent of gross domestic product.

“When you have a good season the economy grows. When you have a drought it slows down,” says Nabil Sukkar, a Syrian economist. “A lot of people have been displaced, so . . . it creates pressure on Damascus and this is a problem – it’s a social problem.”

On the outskirts of Yabroud, a small town about 90km north of Damascus, Mr Yezbak mulls over the causes of the drought. “It’s because of the factories, they are bringing pollution. Also, the nature, it has changed,” he says.

For him and his colleagues it is a problem that has become noticeably worse over the past decade. To make a point about the changing climate, Mr Yezbak holds his hand out flat above the road. “We used to have too much snow, almost half a metre of snow, but this [new] generation does not know snow.”

As a consequence of the diminishing water levels, walnut trees have wilted and vegetables such as potatoes, beans and marrows are no longer grown in the area, the farmers say. Apricot trees still dot the area, although some are irrigated with sewage.

Farther to the north and east the situation is worse. In some districts livestock farmers have lost up to 70 per cent of their herds, while others have endured failed crops for a third successive year, says Abdulla Tahir bin Yehia, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s representative in Damascus .

The lack of rain has sucked farmers into a vicious circle: because of the drought they have to buy fodder to feed their livestock, but the failure of crops has driven up cereal prices. Yet because so many are being forced to sell their sheep and goats, livestock prices have plummeted.

“It’s always the same people who are suffering,” Mr bin Yehia says.

Mohammed Darwish is among those.

Leaning on a stick as he minds a herd of sheep, he explains that he had to abandon his farm in Al-Hassakeh after his crops failed for three years. Once the owner of 50 sheep, he says he now owns just five goats and was forced to take the job as a shepherd in Nabek, a short distance from Yabroud.

Mr bin Yehia says the government is helping farmers with measures such as food assistance and rescheduling loans. But the size of the problem is “beyond the capacity of the country”.

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