The ancient Inezi tribe of Syria reared camels in the sandswept lands north of the Euphrates River from the time of the Prophet Mohammad. Now water shortages have consigned that way of life to distant memory.
Drought in the past five years has killed 85 per cent of livestock in eastern Syria, the Inezis’ ancestral land, and forced up to half a million people to leave. Annual rainfall averaged 152 millimetres in the last decade, down from 189 in the 1980s. An unprecedented heat wave this summer saw temperatures exceed 40 C for 46 days in a row. Syria has become a wheat importer, and climate models project the region will become hotter and drier.
But other factors are exacerbating the problem. Illegal wells used to irrigate subsidized wheat and cotton have contributed to the destruction of the water table, and it’s estimated that 59 per cent of agricultural land has been polluted, with raw sewage being widely used for irrigation
Residents blame corruption and mismanagement, citing badly run state-controlled estates, a legacy of Soviet-style policies, and irrigation canals dug to reach well-connected landowners in the naturally more fertile lands to the west.
“Jub Shaeer is only three kilometres from the canal, but look how dry the land is in the village,” said Ahmad al- Mehbash, head of the state-backed Peasants Union in Raqqa province.
The state launched irrigation schemes for the east in the 1970s and boosted subsidies to grow wheat and cotton, attracting tribal support for the ruling Baath Party. But the Soviet-built irrigation
system hasn’t kept up with a booming population, now at 20 million and growing 2.5 per cent a year.
In the tribal stronghold of Jub Shaeer, the Euphrates River runs brown with sewage and plots of land are black from salinization, as if doused in oil. Occasional olive and citrus trees pop up in the arid landscape at estates whose owners operate illegal wells.
Agriculture still consumes 90 to 95 per cent of Syria’s water, but its
share of the gross domestic product has fallen 10 percentage points to 13 per cent in the past five years.
Tribal links with Saudi Arabia have helped the Inezis cope with the drought better than their compatriots in the east, who now live in slums around Damascus, Aleppo and Hama.
Women and children predominate in the concrete settlement of Jub Shaeer, with many men working in Saudi Arabia or trying to get there in search of menial jobs. Illiteracy and poverty are rife and government services are poor or non-existent.
Social tensions are rising. Tribesmen gather daily at the house of their chief, Ghazi al- Muheimes, to air their plight, such as the shepherd trying to feed a family of five on 6,000 Syrian pounds ($130) a month.
“He needs 2,000 pounds a month alone to buy bread. Imagine a life where the aspiration of a young man is to toil from dawn to dusk under the burning Saudi sun. If there was water, the men would till their own land and stay here,” Muheimes said.
The World Food Program is helping to feed 190,000 people, but an estimated 800,000 of the eastern region’s five million people live in extreme poverty.
Dry spell:A view of a water canal running from the Euphrates River into the semi-desert region of eastern Syria Nov. 11, 2010.
Drought in the past five years has killed 85 per cent of livestock in eastern Syria and forced up to half a million people from the region in one of Syria’s largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920.
“Imaginealifewhere theaspirationofa youngmanistotoil fromdawntodusk undertheburning Saudisun.Ifthere waswater,themen wouldtilltheirown landandstayhere.”
– Tribal chief Ghazi al-Muheimes