Thursday, October 22, 2009

Syria: Deeper into Drought

Water scarcity causing food shortages and rural flight

The Kabur river is barely above ankle height.

Executive magazine

By Paul Cochrane in Hasakah and Damascus

At face value the city of Hasakah in Syria's northeast doesn't suggest a four-year drought is underway. On the outskirts cotton pickers work away in fields and dozens of trucks line the roads piled high with sacks bursting at the seams with raw cotton, while in the local market water melons and vegetables are on sale, and the hotels have bath tubs.

The Kabur river that runs through the city is not dry, yet hardly a river, more a small stream with a depth just above ankle height – exactly what one might expect following a hot and rainless summer.

But the Kabur is much lower than normal for early autumn. The Hasakah area only received 100 millimeters of rain this year, way below the annual average of 200-250mm. As a result an estimated 36,000 families from the Hasakah Governorate have been driven off the land. In neighboring Deir-e-Zour, dust storms caused by desertification were so bad this summer that on certain days people couldn't see more than two meters in front of them. Business ground to a halt and roads were closed off after being covered in sand.

From farming to urban poverty

Indeed, according to a United Nations report, an estimated 1.3 million people in Eastern Syria have been affected by climate change and drought, while 803,000 people have lost their livelihoods. The displaced are finding their way to the larger cities, living in tents and makeshift shacks, and forced to work as day laborers or even scavenge from the rubbish dumps on the edges of Damascus.

Those that are really dependent, herders and small farmers, their livelihoods are being destroyed. If they are not already dependent on food aid, they will be,” said Jean-Marie Frentz, program manager of the economic cooperation section at the European Commission to Syria.

The paradox of places like Hasakah, deep in drought but yet still farming away, is that Syria has still not adapted its agricultural and farming policies in line with hydrological conditions. While crops fed by rainfall have failed, irrigation and the usage of dwindling groundwater reserves presents the illusion, a veritable mirage, of an oasis of productive farming land.

Water intensive watermelons on sale in drought ridden Hasakah.

For a country that has prided itself on agricultural self-sufficiency and its use of water resources – the back of the 500 Syrian pound note depicts the Assad Dam and fields being tilled – the drought is clearly bad news. Yet unlike the past, the Syrian government is admitting they have a problem.

For the first time the government is really speaking about the issue, and realizes it is an emergency situation. In the past, there was a tendency to deny or say it is Syrian business and no need for international assistance,” said Frentz.

The UN, along with seven NGOs and the Syrian government, have established the Syrian Drought Response Team, requesting $53.9 million from international donors. The bulk of the money - $29 million - is for food aid, while $20 million is earmarked for supporting agriculture and livelihoods.

This is significantly more than asked for in 2008 by Damascus, for some $20 million, which Syria failed to raise from donors until earlier this year.

Conceding the scale of the drought has put Damascus in a tough spot, as it was “bad public relations for Syria to have to feel like Ethiopia, of presenting an image of people starving and sick children,” said Jihad Yazigi, editor of business publication Syria Report. “And it was quite a strange situation, as the same week the appeal was made [UAE real estate developer] Majid Al Futtaim announced the launch of a $1 billion project [just outside Damascus] in Yaafour. It says something about the new Syria,” he added.

The government is even attributing the economic slowdown in the country to the drought, despite agriculture accounting for an estimated 20 percent of gross domestic product and 10 percent of total exports.

Last year, as EXECUTIVE reported, Syria experienced its worst wheat and barley harvest in recent history, producing just two million tons of wheat and 90 percent less barley than in 2007. The target for wheat production in 2009 was back to former levels of 4.5 million tons, but year end projections estimate only 3.4 million tons.

Cotton pickers in Hasakah.

Importing food staples

The up-tick is due to average rainfall in certain areas of the country, particularly along the coastline, and from better irrigation usage. However, in areas reliant on rainfall in the northeast and east there was almost zero production, said Dr Abdullah Droubi, director of Water Resources at the Arab League's Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands in Damascus.

As a result, the Syrian government has boosted its imports of wheat by 300,000 tones to 1.5 million tones this year to boost its reserves, crucial for keeping the populace placated via flour subsidies.

Such a shortfall in agricultural output is forcing the government to rethink how water is allocated, with agriculture accounting for 90 percent of water usage. “The government is looking over the next decade to reduce this figure by 30 percent through new irrigation techniques,” said Droubi, while the Agriculture Ministry is studying a plan to reduce cotton cultivation by 20 to 30 percent from the current one million tones per year.

A shift from heavy usage of groundwater reserves is also needed, said Frentz.



Severely affected

Rural Damascus

1,765, 622




















Total households


Source: Syrian Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform; UN

No master water plan

The general trend is that groundwater levels are falling considerably every year. In rural Damascus there has been a six meter per year drop, while in the Homs area the drop in groundwater levels ranges from 12-35 meters a year, so this is very worrying indeed and clearly not a sustainable model.”

But with no master water plan, and a lack of coordination between government bodies, coming up with viable solutions is problematic.

Water is a very fragmented sector with many actors. For instance, the ministries of construction, agriculture, environment and local administration all cover different aspects of water. There needs to be an integrated water management policy, not a piece meal approach,” said Frentz.

Then there is the scale of the drought and climatic changes. As Droubi pointed out droughts are often cyclical, but without scientific data it is difficult to plan ahead. And for a country of 20 million people with 2.1 percent growth per annum, such data is essential to address the needs of a rapidly growing, and rapidly urbanizing population.

We have to have a plan to combat desertification and study climate change, but there has been no research about the frequency of the drought,” said Droubi.

Photographs by George Haddad and Paul Cochrane.

Unemployed workers, unite! The ILO – Arab Employment Forum

Not much on sale: the Middle East needs to create more jobs

Executive magazine

By Paul Cochrane in Beirut

How to solve the global financial crisis is naturally a hot topic, sparking innumerable talks, conferences and forums. The Middle East is no exception. But while certain countries in the region like to boast that the crisis has largely passed them by, delegates at the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Arab Employment Forum (AEF) in Beirut last month pointed out that the Middle East had a chronic employment problem way before the financial crisis rocked markets worldwide.

Growth without jobs

The forum therefore had a degree of urgency about it, given the challenges the region faces and the highest unemployment rates in the world, set to rise from an average of 9.4 percent to as high as 11 percent this year, according to the ILO. Meanwhile, aggregate growth in the region is projected to drop two percent this year, rising to four percent in 2010.

Yet growth, as Ahmad Majdalani, the Palestinian Authority's Labor Minister, suggested, doesn't always mean jobs, citing statistics of 5.4 percent growth regionally over the past three years but only 1.5 percent growth in job opportunities. Indeed, as the director general of the ILO, Juan Somavia, said in his opening address, “the unemployment rate is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Somavia went on to blast the neo-liberal model of development as a “dysfunctional financial economy” that “privileged the short-term profit objectives of financial operators. The end result was globalization without a moral compass.”

The ILO has set itself the task of rectifying the structural weaknesses of the capitalist system by being that seemingly mislaid moral compass for the workers of the world. The forum was also a platform for the ILO to plug the policy paper that came out of the International Labor Conference in Geneva in June: “Recovering from the crisis: A Global Jobs Pact.” The paper, which calls for among other things investment in the real economy, received “recognition” at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September, and it looks like the outcome of the AEF will also receive such coveted “recognition” by Arab governments. For while the forum had the majority of the Arab League's labor ministries in attendance, and plenty of hand-wringing in speeches, the AEF was essentially all talk.

Ministries without clout

The comments of Jordan's Labor Minister, Ghazi Shbeikat, suggested a reason why. In discussing the financial crisis he said part of the problem stemmed from the region's labor ministries not being brought into governmental discussions about the economy, and that employment was seen solely as a labor ministry issue. “The crisis is an opportunity for a change in relations, for labor ministries to make economic policies,” he added.

Shbeikat made an important point in that not enough resources are allocated to labor ministries as opposed to the ministries of economy and finance. But if the other ministries were not letting labor ministries through the door before, would they now? Perhaps the region's economy and finance ministries should have been at the forum too, as well as high-level representatives of the private sector, the very people that have influence on economic policy.

Expatriate workers

Arab trade unions were also there in force, but they have witness a prolonged erosion of their strength, their ability to rally workers and their voice to advocate labor rights. For the constructive change that the ILO wants, strong labor ministries and trade unions are essential.

Therein lies the crux of the problem: Will governments that are heavily influenced by the financial sector remove the leash that has held back labor ministries and unions? Realpolitik would suggest not, especially given union involvement in politics and the resulting strikes and demonstrations, which invariably send shivers down the spines of the more authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Indeed, some of the policies that governments have implemented in response to the crisis suggest that the needed change is not afoot. For instance, Shbeikat said the Jordanian government has adopted an initiative to help expatriate workers at the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and Qualifying Industrial Zone (QIZ) buy apartments. While this could boost the real estate sector, what Shbeikat did not mention was that the majority of the workers at the SEZ and QIZ are expatriates, and low paid ones at that. According to a 2009 US Defense Resources Management Institute paper, the number of jobs the QIZ created from 2001 to 2004 rose by 46 percent for local workers, while expatriate workers grew 360 percent. So instead of boosting the number of local workers, which would curb unemployment, the government is advocating real estate purchases.

Measuring the crisis

Other suggestions at the forum were not so nonsensical, particularly from Talal Abu Ghazaleh, Chair of the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development. He said the Arab world “doesn't need intellectuals, businessmen or politicians, but experts in vocational work.” Ghazaleh added that to understand the scale of the region's economic problems an Arab Statistics Agency is needed. “We cannot measure the crisis if there are no measurements.” A lot of benefit could come out of implementing these two ideas alone. As for the outcome of the forum, this will depend on whether labor ministries can punch above their weight to get the policies the ILO is advocating in place.

Syria's first air show - with no planes

Executive magazine
By Paul Cochrane in Damascus

It must rank as one of the quietest air shows in modern history. Despite even posters featuring a red devil bi-wing stunt plane pictured flying upside down, the clear blue sky was clear – no helicopters, no airplanes and no screaming jet fighters performing the aerial acrobatics typically seen at international air shows. There weren't even grounded aircraft at the exhibition, near though it was to the Damascus International Airport. The attraction that closest resembled aviation technology was an Iranian-made flight simulator tucked away in a corner.

Still, the first Syria Air Show International Aviation Technology Exhibition was a premiere event for the country. It signifies that the Syrian aviation industry has made small but significant progress over the past few years, including the launch of two private airlines that broke the state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines' (SAA) monopoly. United States President Barrack Obama even extended an olive branch to Damascus this summer, suggesting America may end sanctions against the country's aviation sector.

Nonetheless, the air show raised eyebrows. “I'm wondering: why have a show?” said Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment. “Who is going to exhibit, as Syria is not buying planes?”

The post-sanctions horizon

Indeed, with American companies dominating the aviation sector worldwide Syria is unable to purchase planes due to the sanctions and instead relies on leases and Russian made aircraft. On the other hand, several company representatives said it was the potential of tapping into an essentially virgin market once the sanctions are removed that prompted them to come to the air show.

“Syria's not very commercial yet, we are here to feel out the market,” a spokeswoman for Moscow-based Sukhoi Civil Aircraft said. “We can't sell in Syria as we have 10 percent American parts in our planes; it's politics, and we don't want to jeopardize sales elsewhere. But when the sanctions are lifted [aviation companies] will flood in,” she added.

Sukhoi, however, was the only major international aviation player at the exhibit. Dominating half of the stands were Iranian aircraft, helicopter and aviation services' companies, while the rest were made up of Syrian aviation companies, the Jordanian Royal Air Force, Jordanian pilot training academies, and airport handling services from Bahrain and Egypt. Iran was over-represented as it is in the same position as Syria when it comes to aviation sanctions imposed by the US, with Syria one of the few countries Iran can viably market to.

State-owned Iranian Aerospace Industries Organization (IAIO) manufactures cargo planes, small wing aircraft and civilian planes developed in partnership with Ukrainian engineers to get around the ban on buying parts from global giants Boeing and Airbus. Asked why the company was at the air show, Amin Salari, member of IAIO's board, said, “It's the first event in Syria so we had to be here.”

Other aviation companies were of a similar mind. “We don't provide services here yet, but we hope to and are looking at the market to sell to private companies and individuals,” said Mohamad Khosravi, managing director of Tehran-based Navid Helicopter Services.

The presence of Iranian companies was indicative of the sentiment that US aviation sanctions will not end anytime soon. The Obama administration may have eased sanctions, with American companies now able to get a license to export to Syria, but so far none have. According to a well-placed source, SAA requested Airbus planes but was rejected by Washington.

“The US is basically saying they are easing exports, but the fact that SAA is going to [Russia's] Tupolev [for two new aircraft] means Syria doesn't believe this,” said Jihad Yazigi, editor of business publication Syria Report.

This was further evidenced when the US pressured Germany in late October to ground the engines of two SAA planes there were under repair, reducing the fleet to just three aircraft.

For Syria's private companies, Pearl Air (which has a 25 percent stake held by SAA) and Cham Wings, one of the air show's sponsors, they are getting around the sanctions by leasing aircraft until they can “buy American,” said one executive off the record.

“It's a double edged sword, it affects us and the owner of the sanctions. If sanctions were lifted, we'd buy more planes, technical training, services, and have deals with maintenance companies. We would buy from America, of course. Millions of dollars in deals could be made,” he said.

The potential is certainly there, with Syria attracting a record four million plus tourists this year and more airlines flying into the country.

“Services are really growing for tourism, investment and business travel - private jets and VIP lounges. Business is up for us in Syria while it is down elsewhere,” said Marwan Hijazi of Sky Aviation Services.

Photograph by Paul Cochrane

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Press TV appearance: Yemen Crisis

I was on Press TV on the Middle East Today show, second part, talking about the crisis in Yemen (Sept 26).