The three-year crisis in Syria has already unleashed what aid organizations are describing as the biggest humanitarian crisis they have ever had to deal with. More than nine million people—almost half of the population—have been forced to leave their homes, and while many have fled to relative safety in neighboring countries, most are still inside Syria. Huge numbers of people have moved from the areas worst affected by the brutal, often unpredictable bursts of violence to towns and cities away from the front lines.
Many of the people who have been displaced inside Syria have lost not only their homes but also their savings and livelihoods. As the incomes of ordinary Syrians have plummeted, food prices have rocketed. The poorest people in the country are now depending on aid to survive; the World Food Programme is currently distributing food packages to over four million people a month in Syria.
Meanwhile, it seems that the Syrian regime is using starvation as a weapon. This is what the war has become.
Aid agencies have been denied access to Yarmouk, a sprawling district in the south of Damascus that is home to 18,000 Syrian-Palestinians, for the past ten days. The area is largely controlled by the opposition rebels but is surrounded by government forces, meaning that the routes by which food is normally brought into the district have been cut off. As a report in The Observer detailed yesterday, some are being forced to eat grass, shoe leather, cats, or leaves to survive. One source said that, in Homs, the trees are naked: All the leaves have been picked to boil into soup.
Things are potentially set to worsen even further. This winter's rainfalls have been far below average for the region, particularly in the northeastern provinces where the majority of the country's wheat, Syria's staple crop, is grown. In Deir Ezzor, a province on the eastern edge of the country, the average yearly rainfall is 160 millimeters. Just 50 millimeters of rain have fallen so far this year, and the rainy season is rapidly drawing to a close.
This is not the first time that Syria has been hit by drought in recent years. The country suffered four consecutive years of low rainfall between 2006 and 2010, forcing hundreds of thousands of people in rural communities out of their traditional livelihoods and into the poor and overcrowded suburbs of the big cities. Then, like now, many of them relied on aid to survive.
My source, 'Sandra' (people are often fearful of revealing their identity) was working with a small NGO in Raqqa as the drought entered its third year. She says it was a forgotten region—poor, underdeveloped, and mostly overlooked by the large international aid organizations. When the drought hit, many of the people living there had no choice but to leave their homes and move south.
"These villages did not have easy access to water," she said. "People were moving more and more towards the cities to find work, abandoning their villages. Before they used to leave their families behind and only the breadwinner would travel. But after the drought, entire families started to move towards the bigger cities."
This time around, that will not be possible. The people who are in Raqqa now have already escaped the bigger cities. If a drought hits, they will not be able to return there.
The World Food Programme was already handing out food aid to 300,000 people in the Al Hassakeh, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa provinces when the uprising started in 2011. "The population in these areas has no resilience to sustain another shock such as drought," said Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman with the WFP. "Al Hassakeh, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa governorates had already been through five consecutive years of drought before the conflict and they had hardly any time to recover before violence hit the area."
The WFP is currently evaluating how to get extra aid to the people who will be worst affected by the drought. But it is already struggling to work inside a country that has effectively been carved up into fiefdoms by its various warring factions. Last month, the organization was allowed to drive aid trucks over a rebel controlled stretch of the border with Turkey for the first time since the beginning of the conflict. But many of the areas that the drought is likely to hit hardest are strongholds of an extremist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).
Aid workers have been unable to enter the city of Raqqa for several months.
In Al-Mayadeen, a town in a rebel-controlled area of Deir Ezzor province, a packet of bread that used to cost 15 Syrian Lira now costs between 150 and 200 Syrian Lira. Amer, a young man living in the town who I spoke to via WhatsApp, also claimed that there is a huge disparity between the amount of food reaching regime held areas, and that getting to people in the rebel held areas.
"Flour comes from the regime areas only, because the machine grinders are there," he said, "and most land here is planted with crops but people sell it to the regime because they will pay higher prices for it that anyone else."
With prices so inflated and people so poor, the aid that organizations like the World Food Programme provides is more vital than ever before. But it is already costing the organization $41 million every single week to distribute food to hungry Syrians, and even now it is not enough.
"When aid is distributed it is taken to the big towns, so people hear about it and go to take what they need," said Amer. "But there is not enough for everyone."
The droughts that hit Syria in peacetime were painful enough for the country's poorest people. If another drought now hits the country in wartime, it could be absolutely devastating.