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«Managing Blue Gold New Perspectives on Water Security in the Levantine Middle East Mari Luomi (editor) Managing Blue Gold New Perspectives on Water ...»

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UN News Service, ‘Renewed instability in global food markets requires urgent response’ (7 September 2010), www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=35834&Cr=food+crisis&Cr1.

Accessed on 17 September 2010.

26 FIIA REPORT 25/2010 cities and living in makeshift camps on the outskirts. 26 The internal displacement is the largest in the history of modern Syria. The internal migrants exacerbate the strain on the job markets and social services, which are already overburdened, due in part to the presence of a huge number of Iraqi refugees.

Global developments may further compound Syria’s problems.

In 2010, severe droughts and forest fires in Canada and Russia, as well as floods in South Asia, caused the price of wheat and barley to rise dramatically. Between June and August, wheat prices in the global markets rose by more than 50%, while those of barley more than doubled. A ban on wheat exports by Russia, the world’s biggest exporter of grain, is expected to push up the prices of grain, flour and bread towards the end of the year.27 According to FAO and OECD estimates, food commodity markets will remain volatile in the years to come and the average price of wheat over the next ten years may be 15-40 % higher in real terms than during the 1997-2006 period. At the moment, Syria is one of the countries classified as ‘highly vulnerable’ to a food crisis, even though until now the country’s food problem has been less urgent than that of Egypt, for example.28 Yet Syria is likely to face considerable challenges in providing food security for its population in the future.29

The political causes of water scarcity

It is clear that in addition to Syria’s basic water scarcity, rapid population growth (currently at 2.4%) and most likely climate change as well as the government’s agricultural policies also play a significant role in the droughts, escalating water scarcity, and mass migration.

Some analysts even argue that mismanagement of water sources and 26 The Daily Star, ‘Years of drought pushing millions of Syrians into extreme poverty – UN’ (14 September 2010), p. 9; The National, ‘110 000 in Syria’.

27 IRIN News, ‘Yellow wheat rust hits’.

28 See Alain de Janvry and Elisabeth Sadoulet, ‘The Global Food Crisis: Identification of the Vulnerable and policy responses’, ARE-UPDATE (2008).

29 ‘Renewed instability’; ‘Higher average farm prices expected, food security concerns persist, say OECD and FAO’, www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/43208/icode/. Accessed 16 September 2010.

FIIA REPORT 25/2010 27 misguided agricultural and economic policies play a much bigger role in the development.

Until the 1980s, 90% of Syrian agriculture depended on the rains, the irregularity of which affected production. The intensification of irrigation has been a focal point ever since then, and the Euphrates has been at the centre of this plan. Since 1985, irrigated areas have doubled, with an almost 10% increase annually, most of the irrigated lands being in the Euphrates river basin in northeastern Syria and on the coastal plain. Nevertheless, the irrigated area still represents only 21.6% of the total arable land, whereas the rest of the land depends on the rains. The increase in the irrigated landmass can mainly be attributed to the augmented use of groundwater sources. Between 1985 and 2002, the percentage of groundwater usage rose from 49% to 57% of the total amount of water used for irrigation. Issues such as the quality of the soil, and the water that traverses it, hamper the realization of irrigation projects. In the Euphrates basin, the salinity of the soil and water due to excessive agriculture, the evaporation of surface water sources and disagreements between the government bureaucracy and farmers count among the common problems. It is estimated that half of the irrigated land is impregnated with salt. 30 These policies are closely related to the basic objectives of the Syrian Ba’thist regime, namely the attempt to enhance national security by achieving self-sufficiency in the main crops and increasing agricultural production for this purpose.31 The ‘seven strategic crops’32 for which the government sets prices occupy three-quarters of the cultivated land in Syria. In particular, the use of irrigation for Syria’s main food crop, wheat, has grown substantially and, as a result, Syria became self-sufficient in wheat in the 1990s. Yet, as pointed out by Jessica Barnes, the aim of the major irrigation projects is not merely to accelerate wheat cultivation for the growing population. Instead, the intention has also been to increase the export of grains and other 30 Marwa Daoudy, ‘Les Politiques de ‘eau en Syrie: Réalisations et obstacles’, in: Bauduin Dupret, Zouhair Ghazzal, Youssef Courbage & Mohammed al-Dbiyat (ed.), La Syrie au present: Reflects d’une société (Arles: Sindbad, 2007), pp. 607-615; Climate Change, Water and Policy-Making Process in the Levant and North Africa. A closed workshop with leading water experts from the Levant, 4 August 2009, Issam Fares Institute, AUB, p. 3.

31 See: Barnes, ‘Managing the Waters’, p. 511.

32 Wheat, barley, cotton, tobacco, sugar beet, lentils, and chickpeas.

28 FIIA REPORT 25/2010 crops. This is most evident in the case of water-intensive cotton, which has become one of the most important products for Syria and, alongside wheat, receives the most irrigation. 33 Barnes attributes this emphasis on irrigation to several factors inherent in Syria’s Ba’thist legacy. Firstly, she refers to the peasant origin of many of the leading figures in the country’s Ba’thist past.





Notably, Hafez al-Asad, Syria’s president from 1971 to 2000, always underlined his rural background. Secondly, peasants constitute a key part of the party’s and the regime’s supporters and, consequently, the promotion of their interests has been, and is, essential for the regime. Of particular importance is the influential Supreme Agricultural Council, which has been very active in lobbying for continued support for the agricultural sector and in objecting to any limits being placed on pumping from groundwater aquifers. 34 Finally, economic considerations play an important role alongside ideological and political factors. Half of the Syrian population lives in rural areas and agriculture’s share of GDP was about 30% until recently.35 According to a recent estimate, it provides work for about 50% of the population.36 Instead of agricultural policies, other analysts emphasize the role of economic liberalization as a triggering or exacerbating factor. As early as the 1990s, and more pronouncedly during Bashar al-Assad’s presidency, Syria pursued a policy that could be labelled as ‘selective economic liberalization’. The policy, which was initiated in large part due to mounting resource scarcities, has sparked internal disputes among the regime’s elite, between reformers and conservatives. 37 An 33 Barnes, ‘Managing the Waters’, p. 515 and 524.

34 Ibid., pp. 522-523.

35 In 2008, agriculture accounted for c. 17% of GDP.

36 Meslmani, Vulnerability Assessment, p. 21. See also: Alexander Sarris, ‘Agriculture in Syrian Macroeconomic Context’ www.fao.org./docrep/006/y4890e/y4890e05.htm. Accessed on 15 September 2010. Percentage estimates for the labour force or the whole population vary considerably. One reason for the conflicting figures for agricultural employment is the fact that agriculture is often a source of part-time employment. In any case, the role of agriculture, albeit diminishing, is still very important.

37 Raymond Hinnebusch, ‘Syria under the Ba’th: The Political Economy of Populist Authoritarianism’, in Raymond Hinnebusch & Soren Schmidt, The State and the Political Economy of Reform in Syria (St Andrews Papers on Contemporary Syria, 2009), pp. 18–22.

FIIA REPORT 25/2010 29 important instance of this policy is the government’s recent decision to lower subsidies on basic commodities. Since then, fuel prices have skyrocketed and there have been severe multiplicative effects on the economy, including soaring transportation prices and increasing costs of water pumping for farmers. Moreover, the decision to end the subsidies was made just when the drought was at its worst.38 The position of the government is difficult, given that the subsidy cuts have been precipitated by dwindling oil revenues and a fiscal deficit.

The international financial crisis has also rendered the population more vulnerable to the effects of drought. The editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique in Arabic, Samir Aita, argues that the recent drought has only intensified a development that began years ago.

According to him, a mass migration is indeed taking place owing to a deliberate government policy of adopting a neo-liberal economic philosophy. Without proper economic support, the structures of Syria’s ‘socialist agriculture’ are doomed to collapse. 39

The government response

In public, the authorities have tended to downplay the problem.

For instance, the Minister of Irrigation, Nader al-Bunni, stated in a recent interview that the term ‘severe drought’ is not applicable to Syria, since not all the governorates of the country are affected.

He also pointed out that Syria may have less rain, but the country has ‘an excellent water resources management system’, which has developed over decades and guarantees the functioning of the irrigation system.40 In practice, however, the Syrian government, which is struggling with considerable economic problems such as a heavy budget deficit, is going to great lengths to address the problem effectively. According to the UN, the scope of the drought crisis extends beyond the capacities of the Syrian government.

Despite the public rhetoric, and because the Syrian economy is still heavily dependent on agriculture, with approximately half of the population earning a living from it, the government has responded 38 The National, ‘Syria faces catastrophe in its east’ (10 February 2010), p. 12.

39 Ibid.

40 Interview of Nader al-Bunni in Syria Today (January 2010, Issue 57), pp. 44-46.

30 FIIA REPORT 25/2010 with some urgent measures. Notably, it has increased the price it pays farmers for crops by 40%. Further, it has kept the price of bread stable, despite the overall policy of reducing subsidies. In April 2008, finance minister Muhammad al-Hussein called the price of bread a ‘red line’ for the government.41 In addition, the salaries of public sector workers have been raised. The government has also granted tax relief to farmers in the affected areas, rescheduled loans, and provided direct food assistance. In cooperation with FAO and ICARDA, the government is aiming to draw up a national contingency plan in preparation for 2011-12. As a longer-term solution, the government has pledged to increase invest ments in the northeast and to build a new dam in the area.42 Tentative plans have also been made to diversify the economic base in the northeastern provinces.43 Yet, as pointed out by many critics of the government, the response has been slow and there are evident problems in the implementation of decisions.

Challenges to regime stability

The primary political goal of the Syrian regime is to maintain its power. Internal regime legitimacy has always relied in part on its ability to provide security and economic welfare for the population, particularly the workers and peasants that have made up its core constituency.44 In authoritarian Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria, maintaining the food supply is a key element in government legitimacy. With the demise of Arab nationalism, the stability of the state as a regime legitimacy resource has become even more important in Syria. Hence, in the far less ideological climate of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, the failure to meet people’s material needs 41 IRIN News, ‘Yellow wheat rust hits’.

42 IMF, Syrian Arab Republic, 2009 Article IV Consultation: Preliminary Conclusions of the IMF Mission (21 December 2009). http://www.imf.org/external/np/ms/2009/122109.htm.

Accessed on 25 June 2010.

43 For the government response, see UN, Syria Drought Response Plan; The Syria Report, ‘Averting Crisis: The Syrian Response to Rising Prices and Falling Subsidies’, (23 June 2008) http://www.syria-report.com/. Accessed on 12 August 2010.

44 Hinnebusch, ‘Syria under the Ba’th’, p. 19.

FIIA REPORT 25/2010 31 is much more dangerous than in the heyday of Baathism when vanguard nationalistic ideology and politics played a major role in legitimizing the regime. It is therefore evident that the recent drought in the northeast, especially if further protracted, is a risk to political stability in Syria, where water security problems are heavily linked to food security as well as to the state’s ability to provide jobs for the population. The poor, unemployed and rootless masses in the slums of the cities are potentially susceptible to Islamism, the only serious opposition to the regime since the late 1970s.

Additional factors also serve to exacerbate the risk of political discord. Firstly, Syria has one of the fastest growing populations in the Arab region and the whole world. As mentioned above, the population growth rate is currently 2.4%, but for a long time exceeded 3%.45 Secondly, the gradual move to a free market economy has had negative ramifications for the poorest. The gap between rich and poor that has long been narrow by regional standards is now widening. According to some estimates, 5% of the population now own half of the nation’s wealth.46 This may jeopardize social stability.



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