With flour subsidised, crop failure this year has eaten into the government's four to five millions tons of reserves
By Paul Cochrane in Damascus, Executive magazine
SYRIA IS IN THE MIDST of its third year of drought. Some 90% of the barley has been lost due to crop failure, the wheat harvest is down by over 50%, and ground water reserves are running low.
In the face of such a crisis, Syria has had to resort to the international wheat market for the first time in 15 years, no longer self-sufficient or able to export from what was, since antiquity, one of the region’s bread baskets.
This hydrological crisis couldn’t have come at a worst time for Syria, with the country attempting to implement widespread economic reforms and reduce subsidies while food, energy and living costs continue to spiral upwards. Furthermore, the international price of wheat has risen 83% over the past year, putting strain on Syria’s budget deficit and wheat reserves.
Such hard realities couldn’t be further from the rosy picture presented by the media and investors in the wake of Syria’s economic reforms, who cite surging investments, the financial sector’s exponential growth, a stock market in the offing, and rising tourism figures.
“People are bullish on Syria, but there are problems we are facing,” said Dr Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment. “Agriculture is not fashionable, people instead talk of industry and ICT, but it should be given the priority it deserves in Syria,” he added.
The scale of Syria’s hydrological woes is forcing the government to rethink its agricultural policies as wheat and barley reserves dwindle. Last year, Syria produced 4.1 million tons of wheat, more than enough to meet demand for the 4 million tons consumed domestically. But the government estimates this year the harvest could be as low as 2 million tons, a drop of over 50%, if not lower. Barley, which accounts for 10% of Syria’s grain production, has declined 90%, having an immediate knock-on effect on the livestock sector, which used 60% of all barley as animal feed. Many small-scale farms have been forced to close as a result.
The decline in production is attributed to low rainfall, the land freezing over at the beginning of the year, and the over-usage of groundwater resources.
“Everywhere received only 50% of rain, and in agricultural areas this is a major problem,” said Dr Abdullah Droubi, Director of Water Resources at the Arab League’s Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD) in Damascus. Other areas received only 15-30% of normal precipitation levels, with the exception of the coastal regions, resulting in an average of 2 inches or less between September 2007 and April 2008, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).
The water shortage is most severe in the northern governorates of Al Raqqah, Al Hasakah and Aleppo, which account for 75% of the country’s wheat production. The problem is further compounded by Syria obtaining an estimated 85% of its renewable water from the Euphrates, Tigris and Orontes rivers, but with poor rainfall in neighboring Turkey, where the rivers originate, Syria is struggling to meet its water needs.
“They are trying to irrigate some places with supplementary water and from ground water, but as ground water is not recharged, it is a closed cycle - no precipitation means groundwater will decrease,” said Droubi. Utilizing ground water also means less water flows into lakes and rivers, as well as increasing the salinity of ground water reserves.
Pollution, inefficient usage of water and above all a surging population, growing at 2.11% a year, is putting further strain on resources. Additionally, demand for domestic potable water is growing at 4.5% a year and consumption is expected to increase by 40% a year over the next 15 years, according to research by Makram Shakhshir at the University of Damascus.
The problem is particularly acute in urban areas such as Damascus, home to six million people, a third of the country’s population.
The growth of Damascus has impacted directly on the city’s water table as the capital expanded from 1,900 hectares in 1945 to 8,500 today. The nearby Ghuta Oasis, a prime source of water and arable land, has also shrunk, from 25,000 hectares to 10,000 hectares, and continues to lose some 200 hectares per annum as the city expands outwards.
The Barada water basin, located under Greater Damascus, has also retreated in the past 20 years, from 50 meters below ground to 200 meters. Some experts suggest this could this could drop to 400 meters in the next 20 years, exacerbated by some 87% of the 25,000 wells around Damascus being illegal, according to Francesca de Chatel, author of Water Sheikhs and Dam Builders. Furthermore, with Damascus’ ground water table shrinking, sewage is reportedly seeping in and contaminating the water below.
With greater demand and a rising population, Syria’s water problems are only likely to get worse, said Droubi. “Drought is a very big issue in the region and related to climate change, but no one knows to what extent. As for the future, the region will suffer from more drought and lowering precipitation - a 20% reduction in 50 years is one scenario,” he said.
Walking a fine line
To offset the crop reduction, Syria received 190,000 tons of wheat in aid from Abu Dhabi, and canceled a deal with Egypt to exchange 176,000 tons of wheat for rice. The government is also dipping into its estimated 4 to 5 million tons of wheat reserves to keep bread affordable as other food prices have risen by an average of 20% in the last six months, according to the World Food Programme.
“Rice went from 20 SYP ($0.40) to 120 SYP ($2.25) a kilo; olive oil has also risen in price, which we have for breakfast, lunch and dinner. People are hurting,” said Yassir Hamod, a storeowner in Damascus.
To counter rising prices, the government raised public salaries by 25% earlier this year, but with accommodation and energy costs also surging, it may be only a matter of time before people take to the streets to protest, as has occurred in 30 countries around the world over rising food costs.
“We have not seen real repercussions from the rise in prices,” said a political analyst with close ties to the Syrian government. “Maybe in February or March 2009 when people feel the repercussions of winter fuel costs coupled with food expenses, here is a test, so we may witness some disturbances but the crisis is not yet mature.”
Nevertheless, with so many issues converging at once, Syria is struggling to find the right balance between keeping the populace placated through cheap food and fuel - spending an estimated 15% of GDP on fuel subsidies alone - and implementing reforms that will phase out subsidies that have been a mainstay of the Baathist socialist system. Finance Minister Muhammad al-Hussein was quoted in April as saying removing bread subsidies is a “red line,” particularly as consumption of bread has increased as other staples have risen in price. But with the wheat crop half the level of domestic demand, Syria could use up much of its wheat reserves this year alone, forcing the country to buy on the international market, where prices have risen 83% over the past year. Such an outcome would have an immediate impact on Syria’s budget deficit, which was 10% of GDP last year. Furthermore, with Syria now a net importer of oil but with demand for oil rising as well as for electricity, up 5% in the first half of 2008, the budget deficit is expected to soar this year.
“It is a mounting crisis and measures are minimal compared to the extent of the crisis,” the analyst said. “The government doesn’t have a clear view on how to manipulate price rises and salaries, it is still very ad hoc and experimental. The government will support employees, but leave to the rule of the market the others,” he added.
It is in agriculture that the biggest changes need to be made however, the biggest net user of water with some 45% of the sector irrigated, a figure hydrologists consider an inefficient usage of water. And with the state the sole buyer of wheat, barely, sugar beet, millet and cotton, the onus is on the government to reform.
“The debate in Syria is what priority agriculture should take,” said the analyst. “In principle, what is needed is a revision of the state plan for agriculture regarding the distribution of crops and harvests.”
The government has already embarked on a scheme to reduce cotton production to solely cater for local needs, particularly as cotton is highly water-intensive as well as accounting for nearly 25% of the total global insecticide market, a further cause of land and water degradation. However, Sukkar said agriculture is still operating along traditional lines as land reform has not been implemented.
“We are faced with constraints, such as land reform laws which put a ceiling on ownership and prevents mechanization of agriculture,” he said. “Law 10 of 1986 allowed joint public-private projects in agriculture, the government allocating 25% in land allocation and 75% private. It was meant to encourage commercial agriculture but it didn’t work, it was a failure,” Sukkar added.
In reforming other areas, such as reducing production of certain crops like tobacco and cotton, it will be a case of losing export dollars but at the same time helping to ensure water sources, said Droubi.
“I say that water policy should be more important than politics, as water decides economic development in the country, but this is lost in bureaucracy and the public sector is not at the right level,” Droubi said. “We need a technical revolution and support from developed countries, especially as the trouble in the region will impact on the Europe and the USA,” he added.
One solution put forward is for Syria to build desalinization plants. “It was discussed during the peace process and has good potential,” said the analyst. But with prices tags of $1.5 billion upwards for a facility, as well as the time needed for construction, the suggested solution for the short term is improved water usage, stopping leakages, and public awareness campaigns.
“One of the key issues is people are wasting water as there is not a culture of saving resources,” said Poul Gadegaard, Team Leader of the Syrian Enterprise Business Centre. “The government is more focused on petrol and diesel than water, but it should be the other way around. Water prices should rise as people need to learn to economize; I think this is a big, big problem.”
Syria’s water woes go beyond crops and potential social unrest to geopolitics. Hydropolitics is the proverbial 1000lb gorilla in the room that somehow gets overlooked amid the region’s ongoing political problems.
“Water should be a top priority now, we are not in the 1960s or ‘70s. We can see that the situation is dropping very fast, and there is no time to even think of a solution,” said Droubi. “Cooperation is needed on a regional level.”
Some progress has been made, with Syria, Turkey and Iraq earlier this year agreeing to establish an institute to find solutions to water and environmental issues between the three water-linked countries.
“Where political relations have had an impact on the water crisis is Turkey allowing more water through its dams to Syria,” said the analyst. But in rain starved southern Syria the issue is still a political one. The Israeli-occupied Golan Heights provide an estimated 30% of the Jewish state’s water, while the water basin connects to Syria, Western Jordan and Northern Israel. Access to the water of the Golan region will be pivotal in any peace discussions between Damascus and Israel, but Syria should not bank on gaining much water the analyst said, despite the Golan’s proximity to Damascus.
“Syria cannot expect big amounts of water to come from this area. I don’t think the Golan will add much political speaking – Syria should look for a solution elsewhere,” said the analyst.
Ultimately, unless a multi-pronged solution to Syria’s water woes is enacted – politically, socially and economically - the country could face rising socio-economic problems just as Syria is opening up to the world.
Graphs, charts and satellite images courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. Photographs by Paul Cochrane.