AMMAN: For 40 days after sowing their crops last autumn, farmers in Syria’s rural, northeastern Hasakah province gazed towards the heavens for a sign from above.
But the winter rains that typically begin in December, and are essential for the wheat and barley crops in predominantly agricultural Hasakah, never came. Instead, distraught farmers watched helplessly as their wheat and barley seedlings slowly wilted into the earth.
Months later, as farmers began to wonder if the rains had passed them by completely, heavy downpours erupted in February, followed by torrential flooding in May. Agricultural officials in Hasakah say the change came out of nowhere, sweeping away immature crops and obliterating entire fields of grain.
Hasakah farmers and provincial agriculture officials say that this year’s weather and crop failures were unlike anything they have seen before, and province-wide, it was reportedly among the worst harvests in almost half a century. Thousands of agricultural workers now face economic ruin, while Syria braces for an impending grain shortage this year.
A combine harvester makes its way across a field in Hasakah province in June 2017. Photo courtesy of Alorodnalyoom.
Unirrigated wheat crops, which constitute around 55 percent of the total wheat sown in Hasakah, saw losses of over 90 percent this year, the Syrian government-run Hasakah Agricultural Directorate told Syria Direct in an official written correspondence. Barley suffered similar rates of devastation.
The state-run directorate remains one of the main agricultural bodies in Hasakah, although the province has been primarily administered by Kurdish-led, local authorities since 2012.
Recent months’ erratic weather brought economic disaster for grain farmers such as Ahmad Kanu, who lives in the tiny farming village of Tel Kojar near the Syria-Iraq border. Beyond lost crops, he says that late rains and high temperatures yielded lower quality wheat—no use to bakers, but suitable for cheap livestock feed.
“I had no choice but to sell my crops to a herder,” Kanu says, although the profits “didn’t compensate half of what I spent on the land, plowing, sowing and renting equipment.”
More than 60 percent of Hasakah residents reportedly work in agriculture and animal husbandry, meaning that thousands of livelihoods have been impacted by the unsuccessful harvest season that concluded in mid-June.
Agriculture-reliant Hasakah province has weathered droughts before, and farmers here have gradually come to expect cyclical dry spells and erratic growing conditions over the years. In the early 1990s, climate scientists first noted the beginning of a gradual shift across Hasakah towards drier winters and hotter summers. And, between 1999 and 2010, Syria as a whole baked under the worst drought recorded there in 900 years.
Even so, the government-run agriculture directorate maintains that the current agricultural season is “one of the worst in 44 years.”
According to numbers from the Hasakah Agricultural Directorate, more than 300,000 hectares of non-irrigated wheat were lost this season, leaving just 20,000 hectares salvageable by harvest time. Local barley crops, which are typically not irrigated, saw similar proportional losses of 400,000 hectares, with 50,000 hectares spared.
This season’s disastrous crop yield is also troubling news for Syrians living beyond Hasakah’s provincial borders. Known as the ‘breadbasket of Syria’, the northeastern province has traditionally contributed between 50 and 75 percent of national wheat production in a country where bread constitutes an essential dietary staple.
Although Hasakah province is the easternmost part of a band of de facto autonomous territories administered by a Kurdish-led Self-Administration, Damascus has continued in recent years to purchase flour produced there through the government-run General Establishment for Cereal Processing and Trade (Hoboob).
Last year, the Syrian government expected to spend more than half of a total 80 billion Syrian pounds allocated for domestic grain purchases in Hasakah province alone.
But after this year’s harvest, an official from the government-run Agricultural Directorate in Hasakah said it was not yet clear how much wheat Hoboob would be able to purchase from local farmers this year. However, they did acknowledge that exports from Hasakah to the rest of Syria were expected to fall drastically compared with 2017.
Farmers working near the agricultural town of Amuda along the Turkish border in August 2016. Photo courtesy of ARTA FM.
Before war broke out in Syria and government authorities largely withdrew from Kurdish-majority northern Syria, Hoboob effectively monopolized Hasakah grain production. After selling pesticides to farmers in the planting season, the agency would later buy virtually all spring crop yields for the production of the heavily subsidized flatbread sold throughout the country. Hoboob was still the sole buyer of all grains in Hasakah as late as 2016.
That dynamic has begun to change. Citing a need for greater self-sufficiency, the Self-Administration stepped in for the first time last year, purchasing 200,000 tons of wheat from local farmers. According to Jawan Shakir, Vice President of the Joint Commission of the Economy of the Self-Administration in Jazira Canton, they plan to do so again this year, with nine depots recently set up to purchase from farmers at fixed prices.
Shakir says that this year’s surviving crops can only sustain the provincial population in Hasakah, which numbered around 1.5 million people before the war and now includes at least 30,000 displaced Syrians from other areas of the country.
But while local authorities plan to buy up a portion of this year’s wheat and barley crop, they have few other resources available to aid local farmers who have suffered losses.
“The volume of losses this season is too great for the Self-Administration to compensate [farmers] at this time,” says Shakir.
Damascus is also taking steps to counter expected grain shortfalls this year. Hoboob cancelled 300,000 tons of domestic grain orders in February, citing sharp price increases after the drought. In late June, Syrian Internal Trade Minister Abdullah al-Gharbi announced plans to import 1.5 million tons of Russian wheat in light of expected domestic shortfalls.
Al-Gharbi’s announcement signalled a major shift in fortunes for a country that was a regional powerhouse in grain production before 2011, exporting flour to neighboring countries and harvesting up to four million tons of wheat on a good year.
‘Dramatic rise in temperatures’
Climate records show that the bizarre and unpredictable climatic disruptions of this past grain harvest season fit into a troubling, longer term trend, both in Hasakah and Syria more broadly.
Colin Kelley, a researcher at the Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, has surveyed nearly a century of meteorological data across the Middle East. His studies indicate that average winter rainfall in the fertile crescent region, spanning Iraq and Syria, has declined by 13 percent since the 1930s, with average temperatures rising one degree from 14C to 15C (57.2F to 59F).
Kelley stresses that these numbers mask much sharper extremes during recent decades, adding that the frequency and severity of droughts have risen significantly since the 1990s. The combination of drier winters and hotter summers has had a cumulative impact, he says, leaving top soil less productive over time.
“We’ve seen a dramatic rise in temperatures since the 1990s, almost a regime shift,” says Kelley. “All of the years since 1990 have been hotter than the historical average, which has further served to dry the soil out.”
Between 1999 and 2010, Syria plunged into a drought of biblical proportions, surpassing any dry period recorded there in nearly a millennium and resulting in crop failures across vast swathes of the country. Agriculture-dependent Hasakah was hit harder than most regions, spelling economic disaster for farmers and contributing to the mass exodus of thousands of people from villages to distant urban centers in search of work.
Other long-term practices have played a part in a broader agricultural decline of Hasakah. Jan Selby, a professor at the University of Sussex who specializes in environmental conflict, says the province’s current agricultural malaise can be partially attributed to depleting reservoirs of groundwater.
Farmers have been over-extracting Hasakah’s water table for decades, he says, and resulting shortages force them to either rely on risky, non-irrigated crops, or move into new agricultural peripheries in search of alternative water sources.
“The reason poor rainfall has such an effect in Hasakah today is that groundwater resources are not as available as they were before,” he says. “That way of adapting to poor rain is no longer possible.”
With reporting by Izzidine Saleh. This story was completed as part of an ongoing partnership with ARTA FM reporters on the ground in Syria.