Conflict and Climate Change Ravage Syria’s agricultural heartland

HASAKA, Syria – At a government bakery in Hasaka, Syria, a blurred image of former President Hafez al-Assad looms over the old machinery and steel lines of the assembly line. The picture dates back to long before the war, when this area of ​​northeastern Syria was still under government control.

Outside, lines of families and disabled men wait for bags of subsidized bread, which sells for a quarter of the market price.

New at the region’s largest bakery is the color of the dough being poured into giant mixing bowls: Now a pale yellow instead of the traditional milky white.

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

In a region ravaged by ISIS and armed conflict, prolonged drought and dry rivers have made stability even more precarious. Here, the ordinary abstract idea of ​​climate change can be seen in the city’s daily bread.

The new formula is not entirely welcome.

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

Prolonged drought in the region has related to climate change worldwide. But in northeastern Syria, the country’s historic enclave, the effects of which have been compounded by more than a decade of war, ravaged economies, damaged infrastructure and rising poverty, leaving a vulnerable society even at risk of destabilization.

Across Syria, The UN World Food Program reported last summer that nearly half of the population does not have enough food, a number that is expected to rise even higher this year.

Many red fields are abandoned, farmers no longer have money to buy seeds, fertilizers, diesel oil to run water pumps to replace the low rainfall of previous years. According to farmers, government officials and aid organisations, the wheat they grow is of lower quality and sells for much less than it did before the current drought two years ago.

This semi-autonomous breakaway region in northeastern Syria, desperate for cash and a stable relationship with Damascus, still sells most of its wheat production to the Syrian government, leaving little to its population. me.

And farmers who can’t afford food and water are selling them at low prices.

“This climate change issue is compounded with other issues, so it’s not just one thing,” said Matt Hall, Save the Children’s strategy analyst for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. “There are wars, there are embargoes, the economy is devastated. And the region can’t take on the slump by importing wheat because they don’t have the money anymore.”

For thousands of years, the Euphrates River and its largest tributary, the Khabur River, which cuts through Hasaka Province, nourished some of the earliest agricultural settlements in the world. But the rivers have dried up.

The US space agency NASA, which researches climate change, said the drought that began in 1998 was the worst for some regions in the Middle East. seen for nine centuries.

In northeastern Syria, drought has been particularly severe over the past two years. But less than average rainfall only part of the problem.

Turkey, which controls the region’s water supplies from areas of northern Syria that it controls through proxy fighters, has been accused of reducing flows to the Kurdish-inhabited area. , who they consider to be enemies.

Since Turkey captured the Alouk pumping station, the main source of water for Hasaka PrefectureIn 2019, aid agencies said forces under their command had repeatedly shut down the pumps, putting about a million people at risk.

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

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

The effects of the drought are vividly displayed in the small town of Al Shaddadi, 50 miles south of Hasaka. The Khabur River, which flows through the town and was so important in ancient times that it was mentioned in the Biblehas been reduced to murky puddles.

Muhammad Salih, the city’s president, said 70% of farmers in the area abandoned their fields this year because growing crops would cost more money than selling them.

The low water level of Khabur, which many farmers depend 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 skyrocketed, along with the prices of other essential commodities, due to the economic embargo on the region of neighboring countries, Turkey and the government-controlled area in Syria. , and US economic sanctions on Syria, also affect the region. .

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

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

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

“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 fight against IS has left the entire area of ​​Al Shaddadi in ruins. The US-led airstrikes destroyed a large residential area, water pumping stations, schools and bakeries used by ISIS, according to local authorities. The main bakery and some schools have been rebuilt.

Farmers far from home drive motorbikes through dusty roads. Masked women in black niqabs pass chickens that few can afford anymore.

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

“We can only pray for God to give us rain,” said Shaban, a wheat farmer. He said he had to sell his sheep two years ago at a discount because he couldn’t afford food and water.

“I had to make a choice to provide water for my family to drink or for the sheep,” he said.

On a neighboring farm, 39-year-old Hassan al-Harwa said the high cost of feed meant his sheep had to live on straw mixed with small amounts of more nutrient-rich barley rather than a diet. higher grain intake than they normally consume.

“They have to be fatter and healthier,” said al-Harwa. “When it rained two years ago, we had enough milk for milk and cheese but now only enough for their lambs.”

Previously, each sheep could sell for about $200 in the market, he said. They now sell for $70 or less, he said, because they’re thinner and because fewer people can afford them.

The next day, four of the lambs died. Mr al-Harwa thinks it is a virus but without a veterinarian it is difficult to be certain.

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

“It’s a small piece of this big, pernicious puzzle,” said Mr. Hall of Save the Children. “The grievances exacerbated by climate change are also the cause of disillusionment and recruitment” by ISIS.

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

“Water is holding back many of these areas,” said Mr. Hall. “These farming communities are the social foundation for many sectors. If you take away the agricultural capacity then nothing holds these towns together.”

Sangar Khaleel contribution report. Conflict and Climate Change Ravage Syria’s agricultural heartland

Fry Electronics Team

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