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Drought exhausts affected communities in Syria

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By Vivian Tou'meh, SARC

“The drought will place further strain on communities who have already largely exhausted their resources. With low levels of income, purchasing power decreases and so does the standard of living”, says Ali Diab, a water engineer from SARC’s Deir Ezzor branch. “This year’s seasonal drought is expected to be the worst since years, bringing further strain to farmers, affecting harvests and food prices.”

The drought in Syria is not a new problem. The country has suffered the effects of an ongoing drought since mid-2006. In 2007, Syria’s north-east region suffered from the worst drought to hit the country in four decades. Moreover, the conflict has compounded the situation, creating additional issues especially for agriculture.

Farmers affected by the conflict, who struggle to reach their fields and feed their livestock, are already vulnerable due to previous droughts. The harsh 2007-2008 season, widely considered the worst drought in 40 years, was followed by another dry season in 2008-2009. This third consecutive year of drought had a heavy impact on farming communities in the north-east of the country in particular.

Syria is self-sufficient in its wheat production. Farmers in the north-eastern area have seen their income drop by 90 percent over the three years of 2007, 2008 and 2009, while many medium and small-scale herders lost more than 80 percent of their flocks due to lack of pasture and fodder. Unfortunately, a lack of investment and appeal funding during this period has left agricultural communities in a very weak state.

With the continuous drought phenomenon, the rainfall rates decreased and water resources as well. Desertification in Syria has grown by 6.4% since 1970. The cumulative rainfall registered in the period between September 2013 and February 2014 is less than half of the long-term average.

“Rainfall decreased to half during the drought season from 2006 to 2010, which was a serious indicator of securing potable water for the population. This had also a considerable impact on the reduction of renewable ground and surface water resources,” said Ahmad Mayen al-Ali, a SARC water engineer.

“During the 2007-2008, the rainfall average failed to reach 66% of the long-term average; this was a catastrophic impact on agricultural production. The wheat production was 2.1 million tons compared to the long-term average of 4.7 million. This forced Syria to import wheat for the first time since 15 years,” added Mayen.

Experts expect that Syria has the worst harvested wheat crop since 40 years because of the conflict and drought, pointing out that the wheat crop will be reduced to less than 1 million tons or at the best 1.7 million tons.

A two-fold crisis

Today, in addition to the challenges of the drought, farmers are facing additional problems due to the conflict. “The crisis hindered the delivery of seed production supplies such as fuel, pesticides, fertilizer materials and spare parts. Also, storage centers, grain silos and mills were damaged or stolen during the crisis,” said Mayen.

Between 2006 and 2013, 60% of the Syrian territory experienced the worst long-term drought and the bigger reduction of agricultural crops since thousands of years. The drought in Syria this year is expected to cause an 18% reduction in wheat and 65% decrease in barley production.

Plans need to be put in place immediately. Mr. Diab has worries about the situation which includes: “The continuous decline of water levels in Euphrates river, the continuous cut of the Khabour River, the continuous irrational use of ground water.”

SARC response

“The SARC's response to the drought in partnership with the ICRC practically lasted from 2009 to 2012 to provide emergency aid and to further strengthen highly vulnerable communities in rural Deir Ezzor and Hasakeh.”, says Feras Farras, Water and Sanitation project coordinator.

During that time, the SARC teams focused on many activities such as: “providing water via water trucking in villages that lack potable water in northern Deir Ezzor and Southern Hasakeh. The number of beneficiaries from each water truck was 20,000 people. “Water harvesting activities included: rainfall groundwater gathering, rain and flood water gathering, in addition to Water Desalination projects. These efforts helped secure potable water from the Sulphur wells.”

This experience back then qualifies SARC volunteers to respond to the current drought-related crisis.

“SARC’s water and sanitation volunteers gained the right experience that enables them today to formulate the emergency and intermediate intervention plan to reduce the drought's effects” said Mayen.

“SARC worked on securing the delivery of potable water via water trucks to villages that lack water resources, storing rain water in large containers for both drinking and watering livestock in areas which suffer lack of renewable water resources. Additionally, the SARC worked to draw the attention of international organizations to help in the efforts to counter the effects of the drought."

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has supported SARC volunteers capacity together with other Movement partners such as the British Red Cross which had a Disaster Response training program for the past ten years training SARC volunteers in Disaster management, assessment, and water and sanitation projects.

The SARC’s water and sanitation department is supported by the ICRC. Additional support comes from the IFRC, the German Red Cross, the Norwegian Red Cross, UNICEF, PU and HELP.