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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
SHAIZAR CASTLE, Syria, July 27 (Reuters) - Only a few decades ago, fish were plentiful in the Orontes river which for thousands of years has provided water to the lush Syrian plains, at the crossroads of the ancient world.
These days the Orontes’s 12th century norias, enormous water wheels famous for their distinctive creak, barely turn in the weak tides. Algae covers the river’s surface and the desert has been closing in.
"The river has become so polluted. The quality of our produce has suffered and there is barely enough now to feed my family," said 80-year-old farmer Mohammad al-Hamdo.
Syria’s worst drought in decades has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and raised calls for a coordinated water policy for the Middle East as the region faces a dryer climate and water supplies depleted by damming and water well drilling.
Yet whether a coordinated water policy is even possible is in doubt in a region riven by tensions and rivalry and where water politics is often seen as a zero-sum game.
The Euphrates River, which flows from Turkey through Syria and Iraq, is polluted and salinised. Damming by Turkey and demands for water by ballooning populations have drastically reduced its flow.
Mohammed Okla is among an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 Syrian farmers and their families who in the past three years have been forced to abandon their land due to drought, according to a recent United Nations study.
"I lost two-third of my cattle after the water wells dried up," said Okla, who fled the badly-hit eastern Hasaka province five months ago and now lives in a tent with his two wives and 15 children next to the main garbage dump in Damascus.
Okla’s family have turned from wheat and cattle farmers into virtual refugees. Flies cover the faces of his barefooted children who play among scraps of metal and trash pulled from the dump as substitute toys
"We can hardly buy bread and tea to feed ourselves. No government official sees us. We received no help," he said.
Farmers from areas as close as 30 km (19 miles) to Damascus have deserted their land for tents, or shantytowns.
TILLING THE SOIL
Syria is a major farm commodities producer in the region. Sales of wheat, olive oil, cattle and fruit and vegetables contribute 20 percent of its $45 billion GDP, and about half of its 20 million population earn their income from agriculture.
The country’s rivers and 420,000 ground wells, half of which were dug illegally over recent decades, have been drying up and drought and mismanagement of water resources have hit agriculture hard, especially in the Hasakah region bordering Iraq.
Hasakah’s wheat production is forecast to drop to 892,000 tonnes this year, compared to a planned 1.9 million tonnes.
Malnutrition cases in the province rose 370 percent since 2006, and 229 percent in the bordering region of Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates, according to the study.
A recent United Nations study said the drought now covers over 60 percent of Syria’s land mass and 1.3 million people have been affected so far, with regions around Damascus, Aleppo and Hamah receiving the bulk of the displaced.
Leading economist Aref Dalila said a misguided agricultural policy, including subsidising wheat production over the last two decades has contributed to the present crisis.
Dalila, who served 7 years in jail for criticising the government’s economic policy and was only released last year, said the state allowed wheat farming in semi-dry areas reserved for pasture and encouraged the drilling of illegal wells that damaged the water table.
"Syria strove to become a wheat exporter, which is rare in the third world. Now we are forced to import wheat and animal feed. Pasture and water have diminished," he said.
The topic is politically sensitive. The government, controlled by the Baath Party since it took power in a 1963 coup and banned all opposition, has touted its management of agriculture as a "strategic" triumph.
But the policy has come under rare criticism after a lower than expected 2008 harvest forced the state to import wheat for the first time since the 1990s.
"We must reconsider our priorities and overhaul agricultural policy. Syria’s population is increasing by half a million people a year," said Rim Abed Rabu, head of the water safety division at the Environment Ministry.
"The food security policy is undermining water security and sustainability of agricultural development."
Finance Minister Mohammad al-Hussein told the Baath controlled parliament last month that the government was working on an agriculture disaster fund but gave no hint of abandoning the costly subsidies that experts say have fueled the problem.
Agriculture consumes as much as 90 percent of the available water, and 60 percent of the supply comes from ground wells, whose levels have sunken sharply, raising the cost of agricultural production and alarming landowners.
SOUR OLIVE OIL
Even traditionally lush regions have been hit. In the northwestern area of Ifrin, olive, apple and pomegranate trees dot the hilly landscape bordering Turkey, but yields have fallen.
"Olive oil, which we export to Europe, is becoming more sour every year. The rivers are growing weaker and more and more sewage is being dumped into them. The government seems helpless," said Kurdish farmer Hassan Siwa.
The story is similar in other parts of Syria. The currents of the Orontes river were once so powerful that they helped shield Shaizar castle, founded by the Thessalonian cavalry of the army of Alexander the Great, from Crusader attacks.
The Khabour, a tributary of the Euphrates, which used to irrigate farms in Hasakah has dried up, and Damascus’s Barada river, glorified in Arab literature, is now a smelly stream.
The situation has become so bad that the government recently asked for international aid and provided cash assistance to farmers’ families to try to halt the internal migration.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation is working with the government on a new agriculture plan which may involve a review of the crop composition across the country and also includes steps to treat sewage, halt salinatisation and improve water management.
"There is no ready recipe," Abdulla Tahir Bin Yehia, the Food and Agriculture representative in Syria. "But it’s clear that Syria cannot continue with the same decades-old policies."
(Editing by Megan Goldin)