One of the underlying causes of the March 2011 uprising in Syria was a severe social crisis. During most of the 2000s, the Syrian people had suffered the pains of economic restructuring during a period of dwindling resources. President Bashar al-Assad attempted to shift growth to the urban service sector in order to reinvigorate the stagnant system he had inherited from his father. He also slashed costly subsidies on basic goods and opened up the country to international trade. Many of these reforms were necessary, even long overdue, but their immediate effect was nevertheless devastating for millions of Syrians—not least because they were so poorly handled by Assad’s notoriously corrupt and inefficient regime.
The situation was worst in the countryside, particularly in the northeast, which was hit by a massive drought some five years into Bashar al-Assad’s presidency. During the worst years of the crisis, 2007 and 2008, average rainfall dropped to 66 percent of the long-term average and certain regions received no rain at all. As a result, some 800,000 Syrians had lost their livelihoods by 2009 and tens of thousands of rural families had been forced to abandon their homes and head for the city slums. And then, with Syria’s social crisis at its most volatile, there was a spark from the Arab Spring.
Many Syrians blamed the regime for what had happened, and there was some merit to that claim. A local journalist speaking to the International Crisis Group in 2009 insisted that the drought was just “a convenient excuse” for Assad, whose poorly planned and executed reforms lay at the heart of the agricultural crisis:
Semi-arid areas around the Euphrates and the Khabur River, where agriculture was banned in favour of grazing, were turned into arable land used for intensive agriculture, at the cost of pumping the water table dry. The drought only brought to light a man-made disaster. And yet, the regime continues to bring diplomats to the north east and tells them it all has to do with global warming!
In a recent study, Francesca de Châtel of the Netherlands’ Radboud University describes “years of unsustainable management” of Syria’s agricultural sector:
The lack of transparency, corruption and absence of reliable data leads to a lack of accountability. Ambitious policies are drafted on paper, but never implemented; special committees are formed to “study” various aspects of sector modernization, but final reports are never produced; studies are carried out, but never followed up on; laws are issued, but inconsistently enforced.
To these self-inflicted problems was then added a disaster not of Assad’s making, namely the drought of 2006–2010. The peak season in 2007–2008 amounted to “the worst regional drought in 40 years,” yet in Syria, says de Châtel, the crisis was “undoubtedly exacerbated by a long legacy of resource mismanagement.”
A new study from the World Food Program (WFP) paints a very bleak portrait of Syria’s agricultural sector. The past few years of war have had catastrophic effects on the maintenance of irrigation systems and infrastructure, and they have displaced farming populations, disrupted trade, and caused untold damage to the ecology. And now, again, Syria suffers a drought.
Cumulative rainfall from September 2013 to mid-February 2014 was recorded at less than half of the long-term average. The WFP’s satellite images and ground rainfall data confirm the downturn in Syria’s agricultural capacity, showing a severe deterioration in vegetation conditions across Syria, particularly in the north and northeast. These areas include the war-torn Aleppo and Hasakah Provinces, which together account for more than half of Syria’s wheat production.
These problems are only likely to get worse. The deterioration of irrigation systems and soil conditions is not necessarily a reversible process. The depletion of water supplies ensures that the crisis will have become even more intractable when, or if, there is ever a central government able to deal constructively with the crisis. The implications are enormous for Syria’s population (on average, bread prices have tripled since 2011) but also for any attempt at postwar reconstruction and future stability.
“Before the uprising Syria had a ‘strategic reserve’ of wheat estimated at around 3.5 million tons, roughly equivalent to one year’s consumption, and mostly stored in areas now outside regime control. In 2013, the government is reported to have imported about 2.4 million tons of wheat,” notes the Carnegie Endowment’s Omar Dahi in an article for the Middle East Report, adding: “These changes imply a bleak future for the Syrian countryside and suggest that the millions who have been displaced from the rural areas may never return there.”
War and drought are now slowly erasing part of Syria, leaving scars behind that will probably never heal. Villages, towns, and entire farming regions are being depopulated by violence, social breakdown, and economic collapse; they may never again be able to sustain a population of the size they held before 2011. For every field abandoned, pump engine stolen, water pipe shot or rusted, and farming family forced to flee, Syria’s future grows yet a little darker.
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