Conflict and climate change ravage Syria's agricultural heartland

A prolonged drought in Syria has left little water for families and and their sheep. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HASAKA, SYRIA (NYTIMES) - At a government bakery in Hasaka, Syria, a faded image of former president Hafez al-Assad looms over the aging machinery and clanging steel chains of the assembly line. The painting dates from long before the war, when this region of north-east Syria was still under government control.

Outside, a long line of families and disabled men wait for bags of subsidised flat bread, which sells at about one-quarter of the market price.

What is new at this bakery, the largest in the region, is the colour of the flour dumped into giant mixing bowls: It is now pale yellow instead of the traditional stark white.

"This is a new experiment we started three or four months ago," said Ms Media Sheko, a manager of the bakery. "To avoid bread shortages, we had to mix it with corn."

In a region ravaged by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and armed conflict, prolonged drought and drying rivers have made stability even more precarious. Here, the normally abstract idea of climate change can be seen in the city's daily bread.

The new recipe is not entirely welcome.

"We feed corn to chickens," said Mr Khider Shaban, 48, a grain farmer near the town of Al Shaddadi, where bare earth has replaced most of the wheat fields because of lack of water. "What are we - chickens?"

The prolonged drought in the region has been linked to climate change worldwide. But in north-east Syria, the country's historic breadbasket, its effects have been compounded by more than a decade of war, a devastated economy, damaged infrastructure and increasing poverty, leaving a vulnerable society even more at risk of destabilisation.

Across Syria, the United Nation's World Food Programme reported last summer that almost half of the population did not have enough food, a figure expected to rise higher this year.

Many of the fields of red earth have been left fallow by farmers who can no longer afford to buy seeds, fertiliser or diesel to run water pumps to replace the low rainfall of previous years.

The wheat they do grow is lower quality and sells for much less than before the current drought two years ago, according to farmers, government officials and aid organisations.

This semi-autonomous breakaway region in north-eastern 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 population.

A man selling chickens in Al Shaddadi, Syria, on Feb 6, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

And farmers who cannot afford to feed and water their animals are selling them off at cut-rate prices.

"This problem of climate change is combined with other problems, so it's not just one thing," said Mr Matt Hall, a strategic analyst for Save the Children in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. "There's a war, there are sanctions, the economy is devastated. And the region can't pick up the slack by importing wheat because it no longer has the money."

For thousands of years, the Euphrates River and its largest tributary, the Khabur River, which cuts through Hasaka province, nurtured some of the world's earliest farming settlements. But the rivers have been drying up.

The US space agency the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which studies climate change, says the drought that began in 1998 is the worst that some parts of the Middle East have seen in nine centuries.

In north-east Syria, the drought has been particularly acute over the past two years. But lower than average rainfall is only part of the problem.

Irrigation pumps on the Khabur River, which has slowed to a trickle, in Al Shaddadi, Syria, on Feb 6, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Turkey, which controls the region's water supply from parts of northern Syria that it controls through proxy fighters, has been accused of reducing the flow to the area inhabited by the Kurds, whom it considers an enemy.

Since Turkey captured the Alouk water pumping station, the main water source for Hasaka province, in 2019, aid agencies say forces under its command have repeatedly shut down the pumps, putting about 1 million people at risk.

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

Whatever the cause, the United Nations Children's Fund says the water supply has been disrupted at least 24 times since late 2019.

The effects of the drought are on vivid display in the small city of Al Shaddadi, 50 miles (31km) south of Hasaka. The Khabur River, which flows through the town and was so vital in ancient times that it is referred to in the Bible, has been reduced to puddles of murky water.

A field of dried red earth left fallow in Al Shaddadi, Syria, on Feb 5, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Muhammad Salih, a president of the municipality, said 70 per cent of the farmers in the area left their fields fallow this year because it would cost more to grow crops than they would receive selling them.

The low level of the Khabur, which many farmers depend on to irrigate their fields, means they have to operate their diesel-powered pumps longer to get the same amount of water.

And the cost of diesel fuel has soared, along with prices of other essentials, because of an economic embargo on the region by its neighbours, Turkey and the government-controlled part of Syria, and United States economic sanctions against Syria, which also affect this region.

A bakery that has resorted to making flat bread partly with corn, in Hasaka, Syria, on Feb 5, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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 do not," he said.

He estimated that 60 per cent of the local population was now living under the poverty line. "Some people are eating just one meal a day," he said.

"This climate change, this drought is affecting the entire world," he said. "But here in the autonomous administration we don't have the reserves to cope with it."

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

"It's one small piece of this large, disastrous puzzle," said Mr Hall. "The grievances that are exacerbated by climate change are the same ones that drive disillusionment and recruitment" by the ISIS group.

The persistent drought has also been driving families from farms held for generations to the cities where there are more services but even less opportunity to make a living.

"The water is holding together many of these areas," Mr Hall said. "These agricultural communities are the social foundation for many areas. If you take away the agricultural capacity there is nothing holding these towns together."

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