The water disappeared here three months ago. The local well's flow slowed, then quit altogether, and no amount of prodding the ground has revived it.

A government crew is punching an ever deeper hole, hunting for the water table, but until it succeeds, townspeople are borrowing and buying -- mostly buying -- what they can from the few lucky neighbors and farmers whose private wells are still flowing.

The cost, $3 to $5 a week, is what they used to pay for a whole month of water from the town supply.

In a region where water is a staple of home talk and national politics, people say they are accustomed to scarcity. But this summer of dry river beds and empty wells has left them wondering whether their town can survive over the long term.

"When it ran out people didn't take it seriously," said Jamal Ali, head of a workers' council in this village about 20 miles southeast of Damascus. "But there is no water left. They have dug one, two, three times. No water. They are digging now. No water."

It is a refrain heard throughout the Middle East during a year of record drought.

Winter rain, which the region depends on to recharge ground water supplies and to feed rivers and streams, was sparse this year, and now much of the region is parched.

Jordan has been planning for months to avoid a repeat of last summer's shortages and water-quality problems that rattled residents of Amman, and the government already has restricted supplies to farmers in the rich growing regions near the Jordan River.

In Iraq, national and United Nations officials have said water levels are less than half the average and that, as a result, crop yields may plunge 70 percent. Increasing agricultural production had been one of the few bright spots of Iraq's economy under world economic sanctions, but this year the country may face what Hans von Sponeck, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said will be a "catastrophe" if funds aren't found to compensate for lost harvests.

Syria's problems stretch from southern villages like Dhoresh, a dusty collection of small concrete buildings along a dry riverbed, through Damascus and north to the border with Turkey.

Residents in the capital are urged not to wash cars or fill swimming pools. In the north, according to a recent report by the London-based daily al-Hayat, areas of the Jazira region, usually green through the spring and summer, are without any growth this year.

Such images have deep regional ramifications. Water rights and water policy affect relations between countries such as Syria and Turkey -- Syria claims Turkey siphons off more from shared water sources than it should -- and also figure into peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

As populations and economies grow, the problem becomes more acute. For example, according to analysts' estimates in Syria, the country's demand for water will surpass the typical supply within five years, meaning shortages could become increasingly common, and not be driven only by weather extremes.

In drought years like this one, it is easy to see how water supply can shape development. Sitting with colleagues under a tree amid the dusty and vacant fields of what was to have been a flower plantation near Dhoresh, Ahmad Faddal explained that he canceled his plans because it is easier, less risky and more profitable to sell the water from his still-active well, rather than use the water for irrigation.

On a recent weekday afternoon, half a dozen tractors lined up to fill the small tanks they towed, then left for Dhoresh and other nearby towns that are also running short of water.

"We drilled the well for irrigation, but we stopped the idea for planting," said Faddal, as aware as other well owners that the ground water beneath their pumps could disappear at any moment.

Back in Dhoresh, where a government work crew's drills banged away at the earth, Adnan Falash drove into town with a truckload of water in plastic barrels he filled a few miles away at the well of a generous friend. Others have not been so charitable, and residents are quick to point to the home of the one person who has a working well but refuses to share his water.

"What can we do?" said Jamal Abdoo, a welder near the small town center. "Water is the essence of life."

CAPTION: The water Adnan Falash draws from friend's well in Syrian countryside and brings to his family and friends in Dhoresh, has helped them survive in the months since the small town's well ran dry. Most locals must buy water.