Syrian Drought Drags On, Rivers Polluted, Aid Funding Dries Up

DAMASCUS, Syria, March 8, 2010 (ENS) – Up to 60 percent of Syria’s land and over one million people are gripped by the worst drought in 40 years, but a deep funding shortfall for emergency assistance has left the United Nations aid agencies at a loss.

The humanitarian arm of the United Nations is being forced to review its response plan for the Syrian population suffering under the three-year dry spell, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, warned today.

The ongoing drought in northeastern Syria has destroyed the agricultural livelihoods of more than one million people, driving hundreds of thousands to urban areas where they face difficult living conditions, according to OCHA.

UN assistance has centered on providing a food aid and agricultural packages to farmers and herders in a bid to keep them on their land and re-start agricultural work, particularly with the promise of rainfall during the winter months. But little rain has fallen.

Syrian families face a harsh existence in the drought-stricken northeast. (Photo courtesy UN)

The UN’s $43.6 million drought response plan is intended to complement government efforts already in place, but only 29 percent of this funding was in place at the end of February.

In addition, food prices have risen at a rate that has outstripped household incomes and the purchasing power of the general population, especially in the drought-stricken areas.

In January, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg met in Cairo with representatives of the League of Arab States. She asked the League to take a “proactive role in promoting international humanitarian coordination and funding for the various humanitarian appeals and response plans in the region.”

Meanwhile, vegetable and fruit growers in dry northern Syria are using polluted river water to irrigate their crops, causing outbreaks of food poisoning among consumers, say environmental and medical experts.

The experts say the problem stems from sewage and chemicals being allowed to reach rivers in rural areas near Aleppo, Latakia and Rakka.

Studies carried out by the High Centre for Environmental Research, at the public Tishreen University in Latakia, have shown since 2007 that the Sanawbar river running through this coastal part of Syria was contaminated and therefore unsuitable for irrigation.

Soil samples taken from areas near the river where vegetables are grown proved to contain significant levels of contaminants and bacteria like salmonella, which are characteristic of polluted water, said Amina Nasser, an expert at the environmental research centre.

Other tests have shown that the Quweik river in Aleppo and tributaries of the Euphrates in the Rakka area also contained high levels of pollutants because garbage is regularly dumped nearby and industrial waste and sewage are poured into them.

Some experts say that the consumption of crops grown near the rivers, like lettuce, parsley, and spinach, which are sold on local markets and eaten raw, has been the cause of much of the food poisoning reported in the region.

But the effect on human beings of contaminants could be more dangerous and appear many years later, Ahmad Ibrahim said, the head of the chronic disease department at the health directorate in Aleppo.

Fruit and vegetable merchant at a market in Aleppo, Syria. (Photo by Luigi Rinaldi)

He added that consuming contaminated crops could eventually lead to chronic rashes, inflammatory diseases or even cancer.

Meanwhile, farmers say that they know river water is polluted but they have no other way to irrigate their crops.

“I hear that this water is polluted but nobody has prevented me from using it, so I continue to water my crops with it,” said Abu Jaafar, a grower from Basa, near Latakia, who cultivates oranges and vegetables.

The authorities stress that they send regular patrols to areas near polluted water sources and garbage dumps to make sure that no crops are grown in these locations.

An official at the environmental directorate of Latakia said that the number of crops grown in polluted areas has fallen significantly since 2005. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said illegally grown crops are regularly destroyed.

However, Hassan Baddour, an agriculture ministry official in Latakia, said there is no evidence that water pollution was affecting crops, “We don’t have any data that proves that these products are polluted. We don’t have specialised laboratories to test this kind of products.”

Fruits and vegetables for sale at Latakia’s main market (Photo by Joti Brar)

On the other hand, environmental experts insist that Syrian rivers are polluted mainly by factories that continue to spew industrial waste in rivers without proper treatment in breach of regulations.

Nasser from the environmental research centre in Latakia said that river pollution is directly caused by the spillage of sewage and chemical waste. She said that to make matters worse, pollution is highest in September, which is when farmers often irrigate their crops.

Official data show that in the Quweik river flowing through Aleppo, concentrations of ammonia, heavy metals and other contaminants exceeded allowable limits because of discharge from sewers and industry.

According to the environment directorate of Aleppo, about 200 stone cutting mills and 90 tanneries in the area spill waste into the river that contains dangerously high levels of heavy metals like chromium and lead.

Untreated sewage also flows into the river because the capacity of sewage treatment plants is insufficient, said an official at the environment ministry in Aleppo.

Uwe Troeger, a German environmental expert, said during a conference on the environment in Aleppo in December that Syria lacks adequate treatment plants for sewage capable of generating water suitable for irrigation.

He said Syria could make better use of its available water resources by investing in clean technologies.

Water management faces many hurdles in Syria because of increasing pressure on water resources and dependency on neighboring countries for the flow of water in the rivers, experts say.

{The Institute for War and Peace Reporting contributed to this report.}

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