Refugees have left their farmlands and are living in tents in Ar Raqqah, Syria, because of the extended drought. Julien Goldstein for The New York Times

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis; editing by Alistair Lyon and Janet Lawrence
Mon Nov 15, 2010 9:32am EST

JUB SHAEER, Syria (Reuters) - The ancient Inezi tribe of Syria reared camels in the sandswept lands north of the Euphrates river from the time of the Prophet Mohammad. Now water shortages have consigned that way of life to distant memory.

Drought in the past five years has also killed 85 percent of livestock in eastern Syria, the Inezis' ancestral land.

Up to half a million people have left the region in one of Syria's largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920.

Illegal wells to irrigate subsidized wheat and cotton have contributed to the destruction of the water table. Farms dependent on rain have turned into parched land. Diseases, such as wheat rust, have further devastated crops this season.

In the past decade rainfall has become scarcer, official data shows, shrinking to an average 152 mm from 163 in the 1990s and 189 in the 1980s. An unprecedented heat wave struck this year. Temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius for 46 days in a row in July and August.

Syria has become a wheat importer, undermining a state policy of food self-sufficiency.

While climate models project the region will become hotter and drier this century, ministers and residents say other factors are exacerbating the problem.

Environment Minister Kawkab al-Dayeh told a water conference in Damascus last month pollution had played a role in the deterioration of 59 percent of total agricultural land, with raw sewage being widely used for irrigation.

Residents say corruption and mismanagement are the main reasons for the crisis. They cite badly run state-controlled estates, a legacy of Soviet-style policies, and irrigation canals dug to reach well-connected landowners in the naturally more fertile lands to the west. …

Just outside the city is the tribal stronghold of Jub Shaeer. The Euphrates river runs brown with sewage. Plots of land are black from salinization, as if doused in oil. Boll worms have devastated the cotton crop.

Occasional olive and citrus trees pop up in the arid landscape at estates whose owners operate illegal wells. …

Environmental disaster hits eastern Syria

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