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Harvest hit by poor weather, inefficient farming practices

The harvest of key cash-crop cotton has fallen and is expected to be badly impacted by erratic weather this year.
(Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

Drought and floods have hit Syria’s farmers hard this year, leaving the harvest in disarray and threatening up to a fifth of annual production in an agriculture sector that accounts for a quarter of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to government figures.

"The weather has been bad this year, and a lot of crops have suffered,” said Mounir, a farmer in the countryside near Damascus.

The Ministry of Agriculture says agriculture was hit by drought during the winter, followed by recent flooding, leaving many crops un-harvestable this month.

The poor yield has drawn attention to the country’s agricultural sector and the need to intensify agricultural reform, especially as weather conditions may become more erratic with the threat posed by global warming.

“According to some reports, the effects of this weather will negatively impact agricultural production by 20 percent,” Haitham al-Ashkar of the National Agricultural Policy Centre (NAPC), a government-affiliated agricultural body, told IRIN. “It’s not a disaster yet, but it’s a bad situation.”

Wheat output is predicted to fall to 4.7 million metric tonnes (mt) in 2007 compared to an expected yield of 5.3 million mt, and down on 4.9 million mt in 2006, according to official figures.

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Barley is expected to fall to 965,000 mt from 1.2 million mt last year. The summer cotton harvest - which endured a poor 2006 when production fell to 686,000 mt from 1 million mt in 2005 - is also expected to perform badly.

For the Syrian economy, in which the agricultural sector directly employs up to 30 per cent of the population, the setback has been considerable.

Self-sufficient

However, while the sector-wide decreases are significant, analysts are playing down the immediate prospects of a crisis.

“I don’t think the impact is as significant as we may think. The wheat crop is lower but not dramatically lower,” said Jihad Yaziji, a Damascus-based economist. “Syria is one of the very few countries in the Arab world that is still self-sufficient in most agricultural products and which is a net exporter.”

Despite the poor 2007 output, Syria will maintain sufficiency in most key strategic crops, except barley. Domestic wheat demand stands at around 3.8 million mt per year, a figure that will be met despite the shortfall. The main loser will be Syria’s export revenues, especially the important cash-crop cotton.

The poor harvest has drawn attention to Syria’s heavily subsidised agro-sector and technologically out-dated agricultural techniques.

“Government subsidies make it easier to develop the sector, but there are some negative effects like the inefficient use of resources,” said al-Ashkar, pointing to the need for crop rotation and the inefficient use of water.

Irrigation

Despite significant water resources from the River Euphrates and Assad Dam and increasing support from central government, farmers still depend on rain water for irrigation, leaving them vulnerable to fluctuating weather.
Rural northeast Syria has long suffered the economic effects of poor rainfall, with unemployment levels among agricultural workers increasing.

''According to some reports, the effects of this weather will negatively impact agricultural production by 20 percent.''

While irrigation reforms, such as the use of drip irrigation rather than rivers and wells, are being introduced as part of the government’s plan to increase irrigated land by 38 percent in the next 10 years, progress is slow, according to local economists.

The latest NAPC figures show that of the 1,425,811 hectares of total irrigated land in Syria in 2005, a little under one fifth was cultivated using modern irrigation techniques, an increase of 4 percent from 2004, but a year-on-year average increase from 2002 through 2005 of just 2 percent per year.

Land fragmentation

Flat-rate charges to farmers for use of mains water, rather than charges per quantity used, also encourage inefficiency, as does hereditary land ownership, which results in an abundance of ever smaller holdings divided between ever more family members.

“Syria is facing serious problems with land,” said Dr Salwa Amber, a representative for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Syria. “With fragmentation you can’t build up a strong and sound foundation for agriculture.”

Moves to improve efficiency

The government has initiated a series of projects aimed at improving the efficiency of the sector.

In the 10th Five Year Plan, initiated in 2006, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a US$420 million irrigation project to move the sector towards modern irrigation techniques. Agreements have been reached with several international organisations.

A UN Development Programme (UNDP) project commissioned by the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture and the State Planning Commission is due to be completed in October 2007 when it will present proposals to the government on reform of subsidies.

“Subsides started without a basic study on the market so we want to see whether these subsidies are being given to the right people,” said Mohammed Battah of the UNDP. “It’s a study to see what other crops we could produce or what crops would be more efficient.”

''Syria is facing serious problems with land. With fragmentation you can’t build up a strong and sound foundation for agriculture.''

The Syrian ministries of agriculture and irrigation recently signed a $58 million agreement with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) aimed at boosting water efficiency in the three northeastern provinces of Deir Ezzour, Hassake and Raqqa.

“It will be used for water usage efficiency for which agriculture is the main consumer, including the distribution of modern agricultural systems as well as investment for the rural poor in micro enterprises,” said Hamid Abdouli, IFAD’s country programme manager for Syria.

But while the government is keen to push ahead with reforms, their impact will only be seen in the medium-term, leaving agriculture and those who depend on it, under continued strain.

“Next year?” mused al-Ashkar, “we don’t know. It all depends on the weather.”

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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

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