DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian officials addressing a rare public forum have revealed the full impact of a drought that ravaged the 2008 wheat crop and displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the east of the country.
The officials recommended diversifying the eastern Syrian economy and finding alternatives to subsidized cash crops, whose cultivation has severely depleted water resources, mainly in the eastern region along the River Euphrates.
The officials, speaking at a forum that is a rare reminder of the “Damascus Spring” democracy movement snuffed out in 2001, recognized they faced a huge challenge, tackling high levels of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy, and low investment.
Rainfall in eastern Syria fell to 30 percent of the annual average in 2008 — the worst drought for 40 years — and al-Khabour, a main tributary of the River Euphrates, dried up, they told the meeting on Tuesday.
The region’s wheat crop fell by about half to 1.3 million tonnes that year, and the number of people displaced is estimated at between 300,000 and one million, though there are no official figures.
“We must plan an overhaul that includes an integrated economy, health and education, not just agricultural production,” said Hassan Katana, head of statistics and planning at the agriculture ministry.
Poverty levels stand at 80 percent and the region’s investment budget is only $17.4 million, according to Khader al-Muhaisen of the government-backed Peasants Union.
Infrastructure in the east, which accounts for the bulk of Syria’s grain and cotton output, has fallen into disrepair.
Illiteracy is rising because the education system has been neglected, and many of those displaced by the drought have moved to Damascus, Aleppo and Hamah where they live as squatters.
Syria was an important Middle East wheat exporter before the drought began in 2007, while the water table had already been depleted by the thousands of illegal wells sunk to irrigate subsidized wheat.
Official figures put national wheat output at 2.1 million tonnes in 2008 against 4.1 million in 2007, rising to 3.8 million last year.
The state controls the production and marketing of wheat and cotton, part of the command economy imposed by the Baath Party when it took power in 1963, banned all opposition and imposed emergency laws that are still in force.
Katana said the government had already reduced the area allocated for cotton production because of the lack of water, but he did not expect cash-strapped farmers to obey the order.
“All our agricultural resources have been used up. The real challenge is to develop strategies and know-how to provide for new economic activity in this region,” Katana said.
Poverty is widespread in the east, although it produces all of Syria’s 375,000 barrels per day of oil and contains some of the world’s most important sites of antiquity, such as the Greco -Roman city of Dura Europos, called the “Pompeii of the desert.”
The region is also home to a substantial Kurdish minority, tens of thousands of whom have been effectively shut out of mainstream society since the 1960s when they were excluded from a national census.
Atieh al-Hindi, head of the National Agriculture Policy Center, said the government subsidies policy had helped to improve living standards in the east but had contributed to its water shortage.
Several speakers said part of the problem was that qualified experts such as Katana and Hindi were not consulted by the government when it set economic policy.
Meetings of the forum, organized by the Syrian Economics Society, were packed and lively events until 2001 when the ruling apparatus crushed a democracy movement that later became known as the “Damascus Spring.”
The event has since lost its luster. Most of the seats in the auditorium where the debate was held were empty on Tuesday.
Most of the Damascus Spring figures were jailed, including economist Aref Dalila, a regular speaker at the forum who was imprisoned for seven years and released in 2008.