Thousands of Syrian farming families have been forced to move to cities in search of alternative work after two years of drought and failed crops followed a number of unproductive years.
"The situation has now got really severe; we are talking about desert, rather than farming land," said Abdel Qader Abu Awad, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) disaster management coordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). "People cannot live in this environment any more and their final coping mechanism is migration."
Syria's drought is now in its second year, affecting farming regions in the north and east of the country, especially the northeastern governorate of Hassakeh. Wheat production is just 55 percent of its usual output and barley is seriously affected, according to the UN's drought response plan, drawn up following two recent multi-agency missions.
Blamed on a combination of climate change, man-made desertification and lack of irrigation, up to 60 percent of Syria's land and 1.3 million people (of a population of 22 million) are affected, according to the UN. Just over 800,000 people have lost their entire livelihood, according to the UN and IFRC.
No-one knows exactly how many people have migrated across the country because of the drought. The Syrian Ministry for Agriculture and Agrarian Reform's estimate in July was 40,000 to 60,000 families, with 35,000 from Hassakeh alone. But with people moving all the time, the figure is likely to be an underestimate.
The UN's drought response plan found there had been a "dramatic increase in the already substantial migration out of the affected areas". Migrants head for the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, according to the report.
"It is very difficult to monitor the scale of migration as it is constantly happening," said Awad. "When NGOs head to a settlement, there is no guarantee anyone will still be there."
Photo: Sarah Birke/IRIN
|A suburb of Damascus where many farming families have moved to escape drought in the country|
"Nothing left for us there"
In July, Hassan Hami Hami and his family moved to a suburb of Damascus after he lost his livelihood as a wheat farmer in Qamishle on the northeast border with Turkey, around 650 km from Damascus.
"There is nothing left for us there," he said. "Farming stopped and I sold plastic for a while, but it was not enough. We had to borrow so much money from people just to survive."
He said moving was a last resort. "It is not our home but with my son and daughter-in-law working we can just about manage."
Hassan and his wife, his son and daughter-in-law and their four children now share a small, bare apartment. Between them his son and daughter-in-law earn SYP 9,000 [US$196] a month by working shifts in a local factory. Downstairs and in next-door buildings live other families who have moved because of the drought.
The migration is causing knock-on social problems for these families as they have left behind the tight-knit communities they belonged to. Crime rates are on the rise in areas where drought migrants have settled, because of poverty, say locals.
A UN joint mission report in July said more and more children were being sent to work rather than going to school.
"The drought is causing a high drop-out rate," Sherazade Boualia, the resident representative of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Syria, said. "It is vital that children do not miss out on education. We are trying to give support to people so their children do not need to leave school in order to work. For those who move, we are trying to make sure they enrol in new schools."
Families left in the area who cannot afford, or do not want, to move are suffering. The UN's drought response plan lists problems including the drying up of drinking water; and water from unclean sources is threatening to cause disease. Prices are rising as food becomes scarce; people are surviving on bread and sugared tea, said the UN.
|A map of Syria highlighting drought-hit Hassake Governorate in the northeast|
Aid designed to stall migration
In August, IFRC gave US$300,340 from its emergency fund to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to distribute food to the most vulnerable people. The organizations will launch a joint appeal to fund water purification equipment in schools and promote hygiene. The government and UN agencies have distributed food packages and seeds in the past.
Agencies hope the emergency measure can stall further migration. "When you get to the point where you decide to give up and move, things have gone very far," said Awad. "But many families do not want to leave their homeland and those who have, want to return."
Aid agencies say a sustainable long-term plan for the affected areas is needed. "We need to do studies to identify a disaster risk reduction strategy on how to overcome climate change and have better farming practices," said Awad.
"These include planting new trees, good irrigation and legislation to prevent overuse of the land," he said. "No one will go back if they don't have a livelihood to go back to."