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Drought over but crops still failing

Communities in east and northeast Syria are fleeing because of ongoing drought
The drought has been devastating, placing additional burden on Syrian families. In the east and northeast, some abandoned their villages (Stephen Starr/IRIN)

More rain has signalled the end of three years of a devastating drought in Syria's north-eastern region but it is not falling consistently enough to benefit this year’s harvests, UN agencies have warned.

“There is no longer drought because the overall levels of rainfall have been acceptable,” Abdulla Tahir Bin Yehia, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Syria, said. “But abnormal rain patterns have remained. We describe the current situation as crop failure.”

In 2009, FAO gave seeds to 13,000 farmers but by March this year low rainfall and fluctuations in the temperature led to crop failure.

Although official crop yield figures are not yet available, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated this year’s yield to be 2.5-3.3 million tons, significantly less than the target of over 4 million tons.

WFP said this crop failure meant the situation was still critical, despite higher rainfall. 

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“WFP looks at the impact of rainfall on the livelihood of the households and although some areas have improved, in other areas, specifically in the eastern belt of Hama and Homs and in the badia [desert area] of al-Raqqa, drought conditions remain,” Selly Muzammil, spokesperson for WFP in Syria, said.

According to government and UN estimates, 1.3 million people have been affected by drought over the past three years, 95 percent of whom are from the governorates of al-Hassake, Dayr al-Zawr and al-Raqqa.

Some 800,000 of these people are said to be severely affected and up to 80 percent of them live mostly on a diet of bread and sugared tea, which do not meet their daily calorific and protein needs.

“Direct consequences of the drought include decreased food intake, reduced capacity to restore livelihoods, massive internal displacement towards cities and alarming school dropout rates in some areas. Those affected cannot sustain or restore their livelihoods without emergency food assistance that is coupled with additional assistance, such as potable water, farming inputs and animal feed,” the UN Country Team said in a drought response plan in February.

The prospect of continued crop failure has left those remaining in rural areas holding on by a thread.

“It’s having a snowball effect on farmers in those areas who are already suffering from the past three years,” said Muzammil.

Herders benefit

However, the bad news for farmers is good news for herders, who are using the half-grown crops for fodder.

“The crops that stopped growing are not productive enough to be food for humans, but are providing fodder for animals,” said Bin Yehia.


Some Syrian families are selling their livestock to survive
Stephen Starr/IRIN
Livestock numbers have been dramatically reduced by the drought in Syria
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Three million people need food aid - UN
Livestock numbers have been dramatically reduced by the drought in Syria

Photo: Stephen Starr/IRIN
Herders are trying to revive their livelihoods

During the drought many herders sold all their livestock at low prices, unable to afford to feed them, while five to seven million animals are believed to have died because of the drought over the past three years, according to FAO.

The availability of fodder and assistance from the government and UN is helping some herders return and revive their livelihoods.

“We have noticed some herders who were displaced last year are returning to their north-eastern areas,” said Muzammil. “Rainfall has made some rangelands available with natural fodder for their livestock.”

She said WFP was giving food to 190,000 vulnerable people in eastern areas and that another 110,000, mainly farmers, needed assistance but had not been reached due to a lack of funds.

“Herders in the badia [desert] are being assisted, whereas farmers have not yet received food assistance due to a lack of funding. This has given them a double shock: lack of food assistance on top of their crop failure,” said Muzammil.

Experts are warning that this will cause further migration to the cities.

“Drought or no drought, the situation is still dire for farmers,” said Bin Yehia. “Without more funds and assistance they will have no choice but to move.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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