Poor planning and management, wasteful irrigation systems, intensive wheat and cotton farming and a rapidly growing population are straining water resources in Syria in a year which has seen unprecedented internal displacement as a result of drought in eastern and northeastern parts of the country.
“Population [estimated at 24 million in 2009] growth, urbanization and increased economic activity have contributed to the water crisis, as have climate change and mismanagement of the water sector,” said a local expert, who preferred anonymity.
Compared to other Middle Eastern countries, Syria is not naturally water poor. According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Arab Human Development Report 2009, Syria was ranked 13th out of 20 Arab countries for precipitation per capita.
Annual per capita water consumption was 300 cubic metres, making it ninth out of 18 Arab countries but significantly below the global water scarcity mark of 1,000 cubic metres per capita. The global average is 6,750 cubic metres.
“Syria is relatively rich in terms of natural water resources, but there has been a huge deterioration in availability per capita,” said Francesca de Châtel, a Damascus-based water expert and author of Water Sheikhs and Dam Builders: Stories of Water and People in the Middle East.
In 2007 Syria consumed 19.2 billion cubic metres of water - 3.5 billion more than the amount of water replenished naturally, with the deficit coming from groundwater and reservoirs, according to the Ministry of Irrigation.
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Agriculture accounts for almost 90 percent of the country’s water consumption, according to government and private sector.
Agricultural policies encourage water-hungry wheat and cotton cultivation, and inefficient irrigation methods mean much water is wasted.
“Irrigation by flooding uses 30-40 percent more water than modern drip irrigation,” said de Châtel.
Something that bodes ill for the future is that despite a 2005 law against drilling wells, illegal wells have proliferated and are being drilled ever deeper to reach shrinking groundwater reserves. “Farmers have depleted groundwater by extracting water for their crops,” said de Châtel.
The recent influx of hundreds of thousands of people from drought-affected regions into towns and cities is placing a huge strain on urban water supplies.
The Damascus water basin is a closed water system and its resources are being depleted. The city water network leaks up to 60 percent of the water it carries, according to the local authorities. Migrants living on the outskirts are having to pay for water from tankers at an inflated price.
“The root issue is the lack of strategy or proper management,” said the above-mentioned local water expert. “The Damascus basin could have been helped by creating industrial areas in the relatively water-rich coastal zones rather than encouraging businesses to Damascus, for example. But there is no forward thinking and now the urban population will suffer.”
“There urgently needs to be a stronger legal framework and enforcement of the laws,” said de Châtel.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions