The conflict in Syria has dragged on for so long now that many have forgotten its origins. One of the country’s defining conditions that exacerbated the growing political crisis in 2011 was its inefficient agricultural policies that left it vastly unprepared for the devastating 2006 drought. What policies can prevent this from happening again?
The Syrian government did not have a plan in place to deal with such a devastating drought. President Bashar al-Assad implemented a policy that required permits to drill for new wells, but that legislation was ignored. While some of the droughts effects were mitigated through farmers’ illegal well based irrigation, the government did not have any solutions once the water table was depleted past reasonable extraction. The agriculture sector was hit hard: yield plummeted by 50%.
The combination of the drought and the political climate decreased employment in the agricultural industry from 27% in 2005 to 13.2% in 2014, displacing 1.5 million farmers in the process. These crises’ effects on the industry were severely detrimental to the Syrian economy, considering 40% of Syria’s GDP comes from its agriculture sector.
The agricultural crisis that resulted from the 2006 drought clearly helped plunge the country into the conflict it has been stuck in for years. If the political conflict does come to an end, however, how can the Syrian government reform the original agricultural policies that helped send the country down the bloody path of civil war?
The first step to rebuilding the Syrian agricultural sector will be serious policy reform. Here are four policy recommendations that can help Syria restore its self-sustaining agricultural communities.
Mandate Drip Irrigation
Agricultural activities use up 85% of water resources in Syria, so it’s important to use that water economically. From 1960 to 1980, 75% of the agricultural budget went to irrigation canals, which in the end only salinized and water logged the soil. Drip irrigation prevents both issues from happening.
Drip irrigation does not water log the soil because of the slow rate of water seeping into the soil. Further, it does not salinize the soil because the water does not run across the land picking up salt along the way. Drip irrigation requires using a network of pipes and tubes; so, the average farmer can irrigate his crops by placing the infrastructure near the crop line for little cost. On medium sized farms irrigated by wells, using drip irrigation can increase farm profits by 67%.
Encourage More Crop rotation.
While Syrian farmers do rotate their crops, it does not happen at the rate or scale needed to protect the soil. Cotton and wheat are two of the biggest exports in Syria, and they are both water intensive. Rotating crops during different seasons uses up different nutrients in the soil so that the nitrogen is not exhausted all at once.
Crops that work well to replenish the soil in rotation with cotton include corn and grain sorghum. Leaving the fields fallow, which often happens in Syria, does not replenish the nutrients in the soil the way rotating crops does. Instead, farmers should plant food legumes like chickpeas, lentil and fava beans, which all increase the nitrogen in the soil thus improving crop growth.
One of the most significant contributors to low crop yield in Syria is unrestrained grazing of sheep and goats on farmland during the off season. While allowing animals to graze on these areas is a short-term solution for feeding the animals, it causes long term problems for the farmers since the crops have a harder time growing back the next year. Regulating this grazing is an important part of insuring farmers get the highest crop yield every year.
Develop an Agricultural Loan System
A system need to be developed whereby farmers could directly apply to the government for loans and invest in the techniques listed above. When Syrian farmers were given the necessary loans, water and fuel usage declined by 30 and 65%, respectively. Farmers cut work time in half but increased yields by 60%. The current system of loans requires burdensome certification and permitting. A more efficient system would give farmers the capital they need to restore this deteriorated industry. There are many models to follow, including the formation of agricultural cooperatives to consolidate small farms into one loan receiving entity.
These recommendations are starting points meant to begin the discussion about the industrial rebuilding of post-civil war Syria. Efficiently developing Syria’s key industries including agriculture and energy can be the ladder out of despair for millions of Syrians across the country. The post-civil war Syrian government should have reforming its agriculture system as a top priority, since this process will unleash a much needed and incredible economic and social stimulus for recovery.
Ande Troutman has been a blog writer for CID since March 2017 and specializes in energy policy and natural resource development. She has experience working on environmental policy in both state government and the private sector. Ande is currently working as an international consultant for CID in Scotland.