Village Dwellers Drawn to City Slums

Drought and unemployment lead many to flee rural poverty.

Village Dwellers Drawn to City Slums

Drought and unemployment lead many to flee rural poverty.

Friday, 31 July, 2009
After three seasons of severe drought left his land barren, Ali al-Hassan, 24, has fled his village of Al-Bajariyah in the northeastern province of Qamishli to start a new life in Lebanon.

He and 13 siblings quit the family farm to make a living harvesting fruit and vegetables for a farmer. Hassan makes around 200 US dollars a month and works for around ten hours daily.

“We couldn’t sustain ourselves here any more,” said Hassan on a holiday visit to his home town. “We had to travel to find work and accept the humiliation of working for an employer after having been the masters of our own land.”

He is among more than 200,000 people who have left their homes in the northeast over the past six years because of rising unemployment and poverty, according to some official estimates. They’ve moved to other parts of the country or gone abroad.

This migration has created new islands of extreme poverty around Damascus and other cities, observers say.

In these areas, large families from the villages who now work mainly in factories are crowded into tents or makeshift rooms that lack running water and bathrooms.

A recent United Nations report said drought has affected 1.3 million people in Syria. Official reports raised the alarm this month about the rise of poverty in northeastern areas, showing that around 22,000 people live on less than one dollar every day.

Earlier this year, the head of the union of farmers in Al-Hassakeh province, Khoder al-Muhaisen, publicly warned of a “demographic, social and agricultural” crisis affecting the area and called on the authorities to act.

The northeastern provinces are the major agricultural area of the country and rely on the production of wheat, cotton and lentils for their income.

Naser Ali, 37, moved with his family of seven from his village of Tel Aoude near Qamishli last year to a town near Damascus where he now works as a farm guard.

“Our decision to come here was difficult but we need to eat,” said Ali, who has accumulated debts of thousands of dollars after yields on his land dropped sharply over the past three years.

“We faced a lot of difficulties. Life here is complicated, not as simple as in the countryside,” he added.

In June, a report issued by the Canadian-based International Institute for Sustainable Development said that 160 villages in northeastern Syria have been abandoned by most of their residents because of the severe drought of the past three years.

The chronic lack of rainfall means water reserves are low and crop production has fallen, jeopardising food security, the report said.

The period of frost that hit the northeastern areas in January and February added to the problem, further damaging the agricultural sector, observers say.

Some economic experts say the government could have acted to limit the damage to the economy. Growth in Syria’s gross domestic product, GDP, was forecast by the International Monetary Fund in April to fall from 5.2 to 3 per cent this year and 2.8 per cent in 2010. But that fall is not as sharp as that for the Middle East as a whole, which has seen a drop from 5.9 per cent in 2008 to a forecast of 2.5 per cent in 2009.

Damascus-based economist Munir al-Hamash says drought will be a factor in the decline with wheat one of the hardest-hit crops.

“The Syrian economy cannot rely any more on agriculture like it used to in the 90s when this sector witnessed significant growth,” he said.

Agriculture represents between 20 and 30 per cent of the Syrian economy and employs up to 30 per cent of the workforce, according to official and unofficial figures.

The decline in wheat production will cut wheat exports, affecting the state budget, and push up food prices, Hamash said.

The Syrian authorities had been trying to increase wheat exports.

Wheat production in Hassakeh province, the most important area for the crop, is forecast to drop to 892,000 tonnes this year, compared to a planned 1.9 million, Reuters news agency reported recently.

According to the initial estimates of the Syrian government, the production of some crops, like wheat and cotton, in 2008 was a third of levels in 2004.

The current crisis has also exacerbated the problems of malnutrition, poverty and the lack of jobs.

Unemployment is today one of Syria’s gravest social and economic problems, said Mustafa al-Kafri, an economy professor at Damascus University.

He said migration from the rural areas of the northeast would lead to an expansion of the already-crowded slums.

“If most of the people [of the northeastern villages] leave the area, who will work the land on which the Syrian economy relies?” he said.

The Syrian government has recently started distributing food rations in the northeastern villages to alleviate the growing poverty but many say the measures are inadequate.

Hamash said the state should offer villagers more incentives to remain on the land and said some government measures have cut even into farmers’ incomes. A decision to lower the subsidy on diesel has raised the cost of agriculture because the fuel is the primary source of power for irrigation systems, he said.

Hamash argued that the government should encourage the diversification of production. Some farmers are told they can only grow lentils and they can only sell their products to the state, which worsens their financial situation, he said.

The drought also means a fresh crisis is looming from the pressure on Syria’s water reserves.

Kafri said Syria is using its water reserves for agriculture at an alarming rate because of scarce rainfall. The problem is exacerbated by outdated irrigation systems, according to UN agencies.

Ali, the farmer who moved to the outskirts of Damascus, feels that the future for his children looks gloomy.

“The problem is that I don’t see any prospects for me and my children in the city either,” he said.
Support our journalists