Irrigation means food on the table for a family in Syria
Zuhayya, her husband Khalaf, and their nine children live in Maskaneh district in rural Aleppo. More than a decade ago, their fields were full. Wheat, maize, soybeans and vegetables fed their family ,and water from the Euphrates River flowed year-round.
During years of conflict the family have watched their farm turn dry after their irrigation canals were destroyed and their abundant harvests were reduced to almost nothing. But after support from the World Food Programme (WFP), water is running again and it’s helping this family to reclaim the only life they want to live – on their land and in their home.
In 2016, Syria’s conflict became unbearable and Zuhayya and her family joined thousands across the country who fled from their homes in search of safety. Leaving their farm was not an easy decision. It was the only life they knew, and they had no way to earn an income and feed their children.
They stayed in a tent in the woods for four months and later in the home of a family member. During this time the family struggled. “The food was scarce, and we couldn’t have a job to earn a living. There were many things we couldn’t get for our children,” adds Khalaf. “Sometimes our children didn’t have anything to eat but the bread I baked.”
Two hours from Aleppo city, Khalaf now drives his tractor through his field with at least one of his sons by his side. After years of driving over dry soil, he’s on his way to harvest olives and to prepare his land to harvest next season’s crops. For many years, he wondered if these fields would ever grow food again.
When it was safe to return home, the family travelled back to their farm ready to continue their lives. Everything they had worked for was gone.
Their fields were dry and the irrigation canals – a critical lifeline to keep their crops alive – were destroyed or in need of urgent maintenance. Displaced families lacked the funds to repair them, and they faced being pushed deeper into poverty and food insecurity.
Khalaf started shepherding to earn a living as the land was no longer able to grow enough food to support the family.
“It wasn’t easy at the beginning - food was scarce and there was no water,” says Zuhayya. “We found our home in a miserable condition. Sometimes [Khalaf] and I didn’t have dinner, we saved it for the children to eat.”
Last year, WFP engineers started to repair irrigation canals in Maskaneh so that families could once again access water from the Euphrates.
In June, water started running to Khalaf’s farm for the first time in years. Now the family are determined to stay on the land, send their children back to school and rebuild their lives.
“We are farmers, we cannot stay away from our land. It’s part of the family,” says Khalaf.
“Before the rehabilitation of the irrigation canals, we couldn’t cultivate. Now we are able to cultivate wheat, barley, cotton, and sesame. Things are much better,” says Zuhayya.
“The water is plentiful,” adds Khalaf. “Our income has increased compared to 2016 or 2017, it is much better. There is a big difference. Now all farmers can irrigate twice or three times each winter, compared to only once before.”
“After water reached us, everything was better.”
With water and crops now filling their fields, Khalaf and Zuhayya can finally afford to send their children back to school. Their sons missed years of class due to conflict and displacement.
“Now that the irrigation canals are running, we are optimistic that our children can learn at school and secure their future, achieve what they wish for,” says Zuhayya.
Their son Erfan is in his final year of high school and wants to continue his studies in Aleppo. “I want to be able to afford study costs for my children. I don’t mind working very hard as long as my children become productive and effective people in the future,” says Khalaf.
Conflict has dominated much of Erfan’s life, and he has already missed out on eight years of school.
“Before the water returned [in the canals] we couldn’t go to school, we had to assist my father with his work,” Erfan said. “We couldn’t go back to school until the water reached the canals and our income improved so, together with my younger brothers and sisters, I went back to school.”
“After water reached us, everything was better.”
When thinking about his future, like his parents, Erfan is only focused on the family’s land.
“I am in my final year of secondary school and studying hard. I hope I achieve the highest scores. I hope I can become an agricultural engineer; this is my ambition. So hopefully, I could help my community in the village and others in the surrounding area.”
In 2020-21, WFP rehabilitated irrigation canals that now irrigate 17,800 hectares of land in northern Syria. For more than 12,000 farming families who struggled to grow even small amounts of food, the water has changed their lives for the better in just one season.
The productivity of the irrigated land has already increased by 40 percent and farmers are now growing staple crops again, such as wheat, maize and sesame. In addition, the project has given displaced families a powerful incentive to return to their farms.
Since the project began, 20 percent of families in Maskaneh Sharq have returned, and many have started businesses selling fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural products to support farming families.