Agriculture in Syria - Water Resources

Water Resources

Water is a scarce resource in Syria as it is throughout the Middle East, but Syria is more fortunate than many other countries. Sufficient rainfall supports cultivation in an arc from the southwest, near the border with Israel and Lebanon, extending northward to the Turkish border and eastward along that border to Iraq. The other main area of cultivation, although dependent on irrigation, is along the Euphrates and its major tributaries.

Rainfall is highest along the Mediterranean coast and on the mountains just inland; Syria's limited forestry activities are concentrated in the higher elevations of these mountains. Rainfall diminishes sharply as one moves eastward of the mountains paralleling the coast and southward from the Turkish border. The arc of cultivation from the southwest (and east of the coastal mountains) to the northeast is largely semiarid, having as annual rainfall between 300 and 600 millimeters. Areas south and east of the arc receive less than 300 millimeters of rain annually, classifying the land as arid. Grass and coarse vegetation suitable for limited grazing grow in part of this arid belt, and the rest is desert of little agricultural value.

Rainfall is concentrated between October and May. Without irrigation, cropping is finished by summer, when the climate is very hot and dry. Moreover, the amount of rainfall and its timing varies considerably from year to year, making rain-fed farming extremely risky. When rains are late or inadequate, farmers do not even plant a crop. Successive years of drought are not uncommon and cause havoc not only for farmers but for the rest of the economy. In the mid-1980s, about two-thirds of agricultural output (plant and animal production) depended on rainfall.

Extension and improvement of irrigation systems could substantially raise agricultural output. For example, in 1985, because of the expansion of irrigation systems, Syria's agricultural output rose 10 percent above the drought-plagued yield of 1984. Yields from irrigated fields have been several times higher than from rain-fed fields, and many irrigated areas could grow more than a single crop a year. Development of irrigation systems, however, is both costly and time consuming.

Syria's major irrigation potential lies in the Euphrates River valley and its two major tributaries, the Balikh and Khabur rivers in the northeast portion of the country. The Euphrates is the largest river in Southwest Asia and it rises in Turkey, where relatively heavy rain- and snowfall provide runoff much of the year. The river flows southeastward across the arid Syrian Plateau into Iraq, where it joins the Tigris River shortly before emptying into the Persian Gulf. In addition to Syria, both Turkey and Iraq use dams on the Euphrates for hydroelectric power, water control, storage, and irrigation. In the mid-1980s, about one half of the annual Euphrates River flow was used by the three nations.

Syrians have long used the Euphrates for irrigation, but, because the major systems were destroyed centuries ago, they make only limited use of the river's flow. In the mid-1980s, the Euphrates River accounted for over 85 percent of the country's surface water resources, but its water was used for only about two-fifths (200,000 hectares) of the land then under irrigated cultivation. In 1984, about 44 percent of irrigated land still used water from wells. Several project studies were conducted after World War II, and, in the 1960s, the Soviet Union agreed to provide financial and technical assistance for the Tabqa Dam, a large hydroelectric power station, and portions of the major Euphrates irrigation project.

The dam, located at al-Thawrah, a short distance upriver from the town of Ar-Raqqah, is earth fill, 60 meters high and four and one-half kilometers long. Construction began in 1968, and work was essentially completed by 1978. The Rabqa Dam was closed in 1973, when Lake Assad, the artificial lake behind the dam, began filling. About 80 kilometers long, Lake Assad averages about 8 kilometers in width and holds nearly 12 billion cubic meters of water. The power plant has eight 100-megawatt turbines for power generation and transmission lines to Aleppo. Until 1983, the power station operated at 65 percent of capacity, generating 2,500 megawatts a year or about 45 percent of Syria's electricity. In 1986, the power station operated at only 30 to 40 percent of capacity because of the low water level in Lake Assad. Provisions were made, however, for future construction to raise the height of the dam, increase the capacity of Lake Assad by about 10 percent, and increase the number of turbines. In 1984, as a result of the disappointing performance of the dam, the government studied the possibility of building a second dam upstream from al-Thawrah between Ash Shajarah, situated on the northern edge of Lake Assad, and Jarabulus, located near the Turkish border. The ultimate goal of the Euphrates irrigation project is to provide 640,000 cultivable hectares by the year 2000, in effect doubling the area of Syria's irrigated land in the mid-1970s. In 1978, observers believed that 20,000 to 30,000 hectares of land had been irrigated and that new housing, roads, and farms had been completed for the 8,000 farmers displaced by the creation of Lake Assad. In the early 1980s, Syrian officials had anticipated the completion of irrigation on about 50,000 to 100,000 hectares in the Euphrates basin, with about 20,000 hectares planned for completion each year after that. The Fourth Five-Year Plan actually called for irrigating an additional 240,000 hectares by the end of the plan. In 1984, however, Syrian government statistics revealed that only 60,000 hectares were actually being irrigated. Ten years after its inception, the Euphrates irrigation project irrigated only about 10 percent of its long-term goal.

A variety of complex, interrelated problems frustrated realization of targeted irrigation goals. Technical problems with gypsum subsoil, which caused irrigation canals to collapse, proved more troublesome than at first anticipated. Large cost overruns on some of the irrigation projects made them much more expensive than planned and created difficulties in financing additional projects. Moreover, these large irrigation projects required several years before returns on the investments began. There was also doubt about whether farmers could be attracted back from urban areas or enticed from more crowded agricultural areas to the sparsely populated Euphrates Valley. Another complication is that the Euphrates flow is insufficient for the irrigation needs of the three countries—Turkey, Iran, and Syria that share the river. In 1962, talks on allotment of Euphrates water began and continued sporadically throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, but acrimonious relations between Syria and Iraq hampered final agreements. In fact, in 1978 when Syria began filling Lake Assad and water to Iraq was greatly reduced, the two countries almost went to war. In addition, Turkey's use of Euphrates' waters for its Keban Dam assures that water levels in Lake Assad will remain low. This problem will undoubtedly continue into the 1990s, when Turkey completes construction of the Atatürk Dam.

By 1987, numerous Euphrates irrigation projects and additional irrigation projects throughout the country were proceeding, but what had been accomplished was not clear. Projects initiated in the 1980s included irrigation of 21,000 hectares in the Ar Raqqah area pilot project, 27,000 hectares reclaimed in the Euphrates middle-stage project, and about half of a 21,000-hectare plot reclaimed with Soviet assistance in the Meskanah region. There were also major irrigation schemes involving 130,000 hectares in the Meskanah, Ghab valley, and Aleppo Plains project. In addition, Syria completed a small regulatory dam with three seventy-megawatt turbines approximately twenty- five kilometers downstream from Tabaqah. In the mid-1980s, work continued on the Baath Dam, located twenty-seven kilometers from the Euphrates dam, and the Tishrin Dam on the Kabir ash Shamali River near Latakia evolved from the planning to implementation stage. The government also planned to construct as many as three dams on the Khabur River in northeast Syria and more effectively use the waters of the Yarmuk River in southwest Syria. Foreign contractors carried out most of these major development projects. The Soviets and Romanians were particularly active in irrigation schemes as part of their economic aid programs. French, British, Italian, and Japanese firms, the World Bank, and Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti development assistance funds were deeply involved in financing and implementing these projects.

In the 1980s, there was good potential for expanding and refining irrigation in the western portion of Syria. The government obtained economical results using small impoundments that held winter runoffs to supplement rain-fed cultivation and to provide some summer irrigation. Small storage areas for water from wells and springs permitted additional irrigation. Farmers, however, had not yet turned to sprinkler systems or trickle irrigation, which would considerably reduce the amount of water needed for cultivation.

Read more about this topic:  Agriculture In Syria

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