I came here to write my column and work on a film for the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, about the Jafaf, or drought, one of the key drivers of the Syrian war. In an age of climate change, we are likely to see many more such conflicts.
“The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war,” the Syrian economist Samir Aita said, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising.
What happened, Aita explained, was that after al-Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.
Because of the population explosion that started here in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to better healthcare, those leaving the countryside came with huge families and settled in towns around cities like Aleppo. Some of those small towns swelled from 2,000 people to 400,000 in a decade or so. The government failed to provide proper schools, jobs or services for this youth bulge, which hit its teens and 20s right when the revolution erupted.
Then, between 2006 and 2011, about 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the UN reported.
“Half the population in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers left the land” for urban areas during the last decade, Aita said. And with al-Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees, a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicized.
“State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing, and al-Assad failed in that basic task,” Aita said.
Young people and farmers starved for jobs — and land starved for water — were a prescription for revolution. Just ask those who were here, starting with Faten, whom I met in her simple apartment in Sanliurfa, a Turkish city near the Syrian border. Faten, 38, a Sunni, fled there with her son Mohammed, 19, a member of the Free Syrian Army, who was badly wounded in a firefight a few months ago. Raised in the northeastern Syrian farming village of Mohasen, Faten, who asked me not to use her last name, told me her story.
She and her husband “used to own farmland,” Faten said. “We tended annual crops. We had wheat, barley and everyday food — vegetables, cucumbers, anything we could plant instead of buying in the market. Thank God there were rains and the harvests were very good before. And then suddenly, the drought happened.”
What did it look like?
“To see the land made us very sad,” she said. “The land became like a desert, like salt.” Everything turned yellow.
Did al-Assad’s government help?
“They didn’t do anything,” she said. “We asked for help, but they didn’t care. They didn’t care about this subject. Never, never. We had to solve our problems ourselves.”