AL-AJAJ, RAQQA, Syria — A baby camel moans in anguish as it sits in a muddy manger, its forelegs folded under its emaciated frame. Its large dark eyes are wet with tears as the creature gazes imploringly at its owner. The cries grow louder and longer, then exhaustion prevails.
Like many of the camels in this desolate Bedouin village west of Raqqa, the one-year old is dying of malnutrition and has grown so weak that it can no longer lift itself off the ground. “There is no rain, no water,” said Ayash Shalhoub, a Bedouin camel herder whose tribe has bred camels for centuries. “No rain means no vegetation, hence no food for our camels. If things continue this way, neither our animals nor we can survive,” he told Al-Monitor on a recent afternoon.
This year more than half of the pregnant camels in the village’s 500-strong herd miscarried due to the lack of food. “Look, she is still weeping for her lost baby,” said Shalhoub pointing to another camel emitting piercing wails. “Camels, they are like humans. They cry.”
A sick baby female in al-Ajaj, Nov. 2, 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
Syria is experiencing its worst drought in 70 years, the latest disaster to strike a nation gutted by a decade of internal conflict, pauperization, outside military intervention and the Islamic State’s gory blitz. The COVID-19 pandemic, together with the Syrian government’s blockage of all but one international aid corridor and Turkey’s suppression of water sources are pushing the country over the brink. With water levels at hydroelectric dams plummeting to dangerous lows since January and water and power cuts growing more frequent and longer-lasting, the United Nations and assorted international relief agencies are warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Rivers and streams that do flow are blackened by pollution caused by makeshift oil refining and leaky pipelines and storage tanks.
Juan Mustafa, the top health official for the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria, told Al-Monitor that various cancers, waterborne illnesses and the parasitic disease leishmaniasis are on the rise. Animals that drink the contaminated water are perishing, he said.
Only 1% of the population living in the northeast is vaccinated against COVID-19. Mustafa said, “The drought and shortage of potable water is hindering our efforts to contain the coronavirus. To avoid coronavirus, you have to keep clean. Without water it’s impossible.”
The northeast region is the hardest hit. Nourished by the Euphrates River and its tributaries, the region produces most of Syria’s cotton, half of its cereals and most of its oil. This is why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is so keen to reclaim it from the Kurdish-led administration that runs the area under the military protection of the United States.
A camel with foot and mouth disease, a sometimes fatal and highly contagious virus that affects cloven hoofed animals, in al-Ajaj, Nov. 2, 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
More than five million Syrians depend on the Euphrates, which originates in Turkey, for potable water. Global climate change is the main reason for the drought. But local officials insist that Turkey shares blame for their misery through its construction of a string of dams on the Euphrates and Tigris over an expanse in southeast Anatolia that is larger than Belgium. They echo accusations leveled by Assad and his predecessor and father, Hafez al-Assad, that Turkey is weaponizing water. Turkey’s suppression of drinking water from the Alouk pumping station in the chunk of northern Syria it occupied in 2019 is well documented.
Turkey itself is currently suffering from protracted drought. “It's retaining the water [in the dam reservoirs] to meet its own needs. There’s very intensive agriculture in that area where thirsty crops like maize and cotton are grown, so less water then goes to Syria. I don’t think it’s part of a deliberate plan to punish the [Kurdish-led] self administration, though Turkey may not be so unhappy about the effects on them,” said Wim Zwijnenburg, a researcher who has co-authored numerous studies on the impact of conflict, drought and pollution across Syria for the Dutch nongovernmental organization PAX.
Today, one of the Euphrates’ largest tributaries, the Khabur River, is bone dry. Hundreds of irrigation canals crisscrossing barren fields across northeast Syria where farmers would normally be planting their crops are reduced to dust. Save for the occasional drizzle there has been almost no rainfall this year so most are holding back for fear of a failed yield.
The dry riverbed of the Khabur is seen in al-Hasakah, Nov. 1, 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
Thousands are caught in a spiraling debt trap, unable to repay loans to buy seeds and fertilizers for the previous season. “Every day farmers are coming to us to sell their gold. Their numbers have risen steeply over the past three months. This is the marriage season. They should be buying gold, not selling it,” said Ibrahim Iso, a gold trader in the town of Amude bordering Turkey.
The drought, also ravaging neighboring Iraq, has sent prices for grains and cereals to dizzying heights. A ton of wheat that cost $180 last year costs $520 now, in turn driving up the price of bread, the most critical staple of all. A ton of barley, which cost $80 per ton last year, is now worth $400, according to local farmers interviewed by Al-Monitor. The World Food Program estimated at the start of the year that a record 12.4 million Syrians faced hunger.
The toll on livestock and wildlife is palpable. “Gazelles, storks, falcons and jackals, we hardly see them anymore,” Mulla said. Storks perched atop their nests on electricity poles — a once common sight — are indeed strikingly absent this year. The number of camels in the northeast region has dipped to 1,935 in 2020 from 2,561 in 2018, Mulla’s research showed. Across Syria, thousands of camels are being sold on the black market and smuggled into Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Peter Schwartzstein is a consultant for PAX and a nonresident fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, a think tank in Washington. “In northeast Syria as in most parts of the world, animal herders and pastoralists tend to be among the most vulnerable to environmental and climate shocks. That’s because for the most part they are among the poorest and among the most politically and economically marginalized, living on the fringes of society,” Schwartzstein told Al-Monitor.
“There is also a limit to where and how affordably they can migrate. So their options are even narrower than those of farmers and others who work in other professions,” he noted.
Schwartzstein’s research in northeast Syria found that on average herders and pastoralists had lost between 40% and 60% of their animals. “In many instances they had starved to death. In others, in order to prevent the animals from starving pastoralists have had to sell them for bargain-basement prices, which puts them in an even more precarious situation.”
“Camels are perhaps the canary in the coal mine because camels require more vegetation, more food than sheep and goats and are more likely to suffer than other livestock,” Schwartzstein added.
Children play in al-Ajaj, Nov. 2, 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
“Hardly anybody here buys them for their meat in this area. We used to sell them in rural areas of Damascus, Douma and Hama, where the meat is popular but the fee charged by smugglers is higher than the value of the camel itself,” Nassan said.
Humans and animals are tightly intertwined in the area, where the villagers use the camels’ wool to weave rugs and blankets and stuff pillows, and their manure for heating and milk to feed their children. “Camels are very attached to their owners and you can have a very strong connection with the female that develops as you milk her. She is very gentle, very kind,” Bernard Faye, a world-renowned French camel expert, told Al-Monitor. “When a camel loses her baby she cries with tears flowing from her eyes for one or two days,” Faye added.
Nassan said camels respond to their names. When night falls they huddle outside their respective owners’ huts. “They are not as clever as horses but more intelligent than cows,” said Faye. White camels are the most highly prized.
None of the children here go to school. All are illiterate like their parents. Girls and boys train as shepherds as early as five. However, when asked how many children they have, the Bedouins typically respond with the number of boys. Even prior to the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the Bedouins would not formally register their sons’ births in order to evade forced conscription in the Syrian army, according to Haian Dukhan, a leading expert on Syria’s tribes with the Central European University.
For many, three wives and at least 10 children are the norm.
Only two villagers, both women, have contracted COVID-19 so far. They attribute their resilience to their consumption of camel’s milk. “It cures cancer, you know,” Nassan asserted.
Milk is in short supply. Syrian breeds are among the most productive, yielding up to 10 liters of milk per day — in better circumstances.
Ahmed (front right) stand with other children in al-Ajaj, Nov. 2, 2021. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
“When camels are undernourished they do not produce milk,” Faye said.
Bedouin culture, with its camels, Arabian horses and falcon-hunting salughi hounds that has excited Western imagination for centuries, is fast becoming a relic of the past. Drought and conflict are accelerating their demise, which began with the rise of urbanization and modern technology in the early 20th century.
"In 1930, Syria’s nomadic Bedouin population, which used to roam the desert, accounted for 13%,” Dukhan recalled. “With the reduction of the importance of the camel due to the introduction of modern transport we started to witness a large number of Bedouins settling in the cities, with the number of nomadic Bedouin falling to 7% and to less than 2% towards the end of the 20th century,” Dukhan told Al-Monitor.
Central governments have traditionally viewed the Bedouin with suspicion because of their peripatetic lifestyle, which knew no borders for centuries past, and crafted policies designed to keep them put. Today there is no such scrutiny.
“We are a forgotten people,” complained a camel herder who identified himself as Obeid. “When Daesh was here they used to give us food and medicine for our camels,” Obeid said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. The jihadis apparently did so because they associated camels with the era of the Prophet Muhammad.
The prophet is said to have owned a camel called al-Qaswaa and rode her during his pilgrimage from Mecca to Medina in 629 AD. According to various hadiths, upon his passing, Qaswaa starved herself to death.
Obeid said the herd is in urgent need of veterinary services. One of the camels has developed the highly contagious foot and mouth disease. He gestured toward the animal’s rear right hoof, which was covered by a large sore and coated in dried blood. The Bedouins’ appeals to local authorities have fallen upon deaf ears. “Under Daesh, for humans life was miserable but for camels it was good,” Obeid said.