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The Value of Water

Syrian Minister of Irrigation Nader al-Bunni acknowledged that “there are many challenges”, but said the government will persist with its efforts to convince farmers to adopt the new system. “There simply is no alternative,” he said. “We don’t have many choices.”
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Syria Today, the minister said that population growth and a rise in investments in the country has led to an increase in water use over the last five years, which has in turn created water deficits in certain regions.
He said the widespread introduction of modern irrigation techniques could drastically reduce agricultural water use and thus eliminate the water deficit.
Agriculture is the main water user in Syria, with almost 90 percent of the country’s water resources going to the sector and low rates of efficiency in irrigation practices.
The vast majority of Syrian farmers still use traditional flooding methods to irrigate their land, engendering losses of between 50 and 70 percent through evaporation and seepage.
Most other countries in the region have widely embraced modern irrigation systems over the last 10 years. If properly installed and used, techniques like drip and sprinkler irrigation (see box p 44) can save water, result in a higher yield per unit and protect the soil against salinization through over-irrigation.
Lack of incentive
In Syria, only around 20 percent of irrigated lands are watered with water-saving methods, despite a series of governmental and non-governmental initiatives to encourage farmers to use the new techniques since 2001.
Most recently, the ministries of Agriculture and Irrigation launched a new 10-year irrigation modernisation project in 2006. The SYP 47,000 (USD 1bn) National Project for the Modernisation of Irrigation Techniques (NPMIT) aims to convert 1.2m hectares of farmland to modern methods by 2016. The project includes a special fund that farmers can apply to for interest-free 10-year loans and grants which cover between 10 to 40 percent of the cost of the network.
Despite the fact that the new fund offers such financial support to farmers, Bunni admitted that the latest project has not been as successful as policy makers had hoped. “It’s not succeeding as it should, but we insist on continuing to work on this project,” the minister said.
According to Bunni, the farmers’ reluctance to embrace the new techniques forms a key obstacle.
“Many farmers believe that they have an undisputed right to water and that there is an endless availability,” he said. “We are trying to explain the benefits of the new system and show that modern irrigation techniques will allow them to save water for future generations.”
However, water experts argue that this is not an adequate incentive. “For farmers to adopt the system, they need to see that it is beneficial for them,” Theib Oweis, a water specialist at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas in Aleppo, said.
“They don’t care about rationalising water use and cutting water losses. They only use the new irrigation systems because they are subsidised.”
According to Oweis, one of the problems is that water for agricultural use is not priced, with farmers paying a low flat fee for water, which means there is little incentive to cut down on water consumption and invest in costly new techniques.
Even with support from the government fund, the installation of modern irrigation systems remains expensive. According to Ahmad Fateh al-Kadri, director of the NPMIT, a basic sprinkler irrigation system costs around SYP 60,000 per hectare (USD 1,265/ha), while the introduction of a drip system requires an investment of around SYP 110,000 per hectare (USD 2,350/ha).
Even with the most generous government grant, this means farmers still have to invest a considerable amount themselves. “The cost is still too high,” Oweis said. “And even though the new system can result in a higher yield from the land, it doesn’t make up for the costs of maintenance, the difficulties in installing the system and the cost of replacing it when it is worn out.”
An added complication is that many farmers are not eligible for government loans as they cannot conclusively prove ownership of their land (see box below).
Changing mentalities
However, Kadri believes that with time farmers will come round to the modern methods. “Farmers are always suspicious of new techniques,” he said. “They are reluctant to adopt them until they see results.”
“Our farmers are aware though: they know that the water resources are getting scarcer, that production costs are rising and that they can save money with modern irrigation. They see the benefits.”
Local and international water experts remain sceptical of the latest project’s chances of success. “Progress has been minimal in the last eight years, even though we are faced with growing water scarcity,” one water expert who asked to remain anonymous said.
He blamed the situation on the presence of “certain obstacles”, including a lack of education and awareness among farmers, the poor structuring of the agricultural loans, and the absence of qualified engineers to help farmers maintain and repair the systems.
“Before going ahead with any new projects, I believe there should be a thorough analysis of the reasons behind the delay in implementing the various irrigation modernisation projects to date,” the expert added.
Still, the government remains confident that the new national modernisation project will start bearing fruit as long as farmers are brought on board.
“The farmers are the key to the success or failure of this project,” Bunni said, reiterating his belief that by emphasising the long-term national benefits of the new techniques, farmers could be convinced to adopt them. “It is not just about technology, but about changing mentalities,” he said. “We have a long journey ahead of us, but I am optimistic.”


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