x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Drip, drip, drip of progress

Feature In parts of Syria the water table is dropping at an alarming rate. M investigates a pilot project for irrigation and financing that is helping farmers beat the drought and survive in one of the most water-starved areas of the world.

Thaher al Halek checks the water pump that feeds his irrigation system, watched by Abu Amim, his father.
Thaher al Halek checks the water pump that feeds his irrigation system, watched by Abu Amim, his father.

In parts of Syria the water table is dropping at an alarming rate. Stephen Starr investigates a pilot project for irrigation and financing that is helping farmers beat the drought and survive in one of the most water-starved areas of the world. Photographs by Ivor Prickett. In 50 years of farming, Abu Amim has never experienced anything as bad as the drought of 2008. "It affected us greatly, there was just not enough groundwater," says the 85-year-old farmer, who lives with his wife and their three children in Fraytan, a small hamlet in Syria's central plains. In the parched earth, his crops failed. "We had to turn all our land into grazing for the sheep as we had no crops to feed them - and even this wasn't enough."

The lack of water forced him to sell a quarter of his herd at a reduced price so he could buy feed for the sheep that remained. That year, the only money Amim earned came from his irrigated plots. In 2008, irrigation was his lifeline. In Salamieh, the district in which Amim's farm lies and where some 70 per cent of people are dependent on agriculture, the water table has been dropping in certain areas at the alarming rate of one metre a year for the past 25 years.

But Amim is fortunate. Fraytan was one of six villages in Salamieh originally chosen for a pilot project to introduce a new method to irrigate crops and plants, one of the most efficient models available in which 90 per cent of all the water is used by the plant. In the past, open concrete irrigation channels brought water to crops, but these were prone to blockages, required a lot of labour to maintain and used excessive amounts of water.

Under the new system, a network of toughened plastic pipes directs precise amounts of water to crops through hundreds of pin-sized holes, restricting the overall amount of water being drawn from nearby wells. The project, which has now been expanded and will continue to grow, was financed through the Aga Khan Foundation's Rural Support Programme, which has been providing loans and equipment to help tackle the growing problem of water shortage in Salamieh since 2003.

Farmers get a minimum of five years of usage from the same equipment, explains Ali Zein, the programme manager. "If farmers take care of the equipment they can get up to 10 years use from the same tools." Amim's son, Thaher, 45, says: "We got involved in the drip irrigation method because we wanted to save water. The foundation gave us information and we saw from the demonstration fields how it worked. We thought this was a good idea from the beginning."

About half of Amim's 4.5 hectares of land is now irrigated using the drip system. "This year we have been sowing barley and wheat, as well as watermelon, eggplant and tomatoes," he says. Before the Aga Khan Foundation became involved, farmers could buy irrigation tools from several local suppliers, but the sole source of loans was the state-run Agricultural Bank, and these were often difficult to get approved. Farmers would have to produce evidence of licensed wells and land ownership and put up collateral, often their house.

The foundation's loans use groups of farmers as their guarantors. If one farmer fails to pay back his share of the loan, the other group members must make up the balance. This way, no one's home is put at risk. Since 2003, more than 109 groups and several individual loans have been made to finance drip-irrigation equipment, including plastic piping and switch valves. Ninety-eight per cent of the loans are repaid in the first season.

Approximately 90 per cent of the land used for summer vegetables and fruit trees in the Salamieh district is now cultivated using this method, financed by micro-financing loans. To date, the foundation has helped more than 900 farmers across Syria's central plains install the system. According to Zein, in the past farmers used to take too much water from their wells because they were worried that if they didn't use the water, their neighbours would. Now, partly as a result of the microfinance project, this mentality has changed. "The idea of the loan is to create a sense of community and I think this has been the case here," says Zein.

Thaher agrees. "Earlier this year our neighbour, Abu Naider, got sick and wasn't able to work his land. We knew he would need help with paying the loan back so we helped him out with his farm work. We feel that he is one of our partners." He adds that the irrigation system and the loans have helped their lives greatly. "In the beginning, buying the irrigation equipment cost about 5,000 Syrian pounds (Dh380) per dunum (a tenth of a hectare) and we started with between two-and-a-half and three dunums in the first year.

"We are now taking 40 per cent less water than before the drip-irrigation system was introduced. With it, we can irrigate five dunums in two-and-a-half hours. Using surface irrigation we would need 15 hours of pumping to finish work on the same amount of land. Now, I can turn on the pump, sit on my chair, smoke a cigarette, drink mette and my land is irrigated." Syria is defined as a "water scarce" country, meaning its total annual renewable freshwater resources fall below 1,000 cubic metres of water per person, according to the Aga Khan Foundation.

As such, farmers have been restricted in what they can harvest. In the past, Amim and his son took seasonal loans of between 15,000 and 20,000 Syrian pounds (Dh1,140 to Dh1,520) to produce cotton. But due to the lack of water, farmers can no longer grow the crop. "We took out loans for producing cotton in the past from the Agricultural Bank, but now cotton is banned in this region because it consumes too much water. Cotton uses two to three times more water than vegetables," says Thaher.

Irrigated farmland in the district has fallen from 40,000 hectares in 1960 to an estimated 9,000 hectares in 2007, according to a recent report issued by the Salamieh Agriculture Department. Of the approximately 5,000 groundwater wells identified in 2003, almost 3,500 were dry. "Now, we are increasingly dependent on the irrigated crops because they are guaranteed, whereas as we saw in 2008, we didn't get anything from the rain-dependent fields," Thaher adds.

At this time of the year, the farmers of Fraytan are busy taking care of livestock, lambing ewes and preparing summer crops for irrigation. Out in the fields, the raih, or herder, takes care of Amim's sheep, bringing them out to new pastures and bringing them back to the farmyard to be milked twice each day. "We keep the largest part of the barley harvest for our sheep, use some as a seed for next year and sell the remaining amount, about 40 per cent," says Thaher.

For the first time, this year Amim is using liquid fertiliser on his lettuce and cabbage crops and plastic sheeting on the soil around the vegetables in order to maximise water use and keep away weeds. By adopting these modern methods and having access to sufficient water, farmers can plant two or three crops on the same land in a single year. This can double or even triple profits. Now, with enough grazing pasture, Amim's own sheep population is ready to grow.

Altogether, Amim and Thaher made around 200,000 Syrian pounds (Dh 15,750) from their farm products in 2009. "This doesn't give us a luxurious life, but it's enough for us," says Thaher.

Farmers must explore ways to use less water, says Rupert Wright Colourless, odourless, tasteless: water is the most banal yet curious of substances, but it has one quality on which everybody can agree: it's priceless. Strange then that most people pay it no mind, unless there is too much of it, too little, or it is polluted. In the Middle East, where once water was so valued that mosques were built on the sites of famous springs, it has been taken for granted. Rivers have been dammed or drained. Groundwater has been pumped to the point of depletion, while plentiful supplies of desalinated water are routinely sprayed into the air during the heat of the day, wasting as much as it waters. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water, using about 75 per cent of all fresh water annually. While countries like to be able to grow as much of their food as possible, does it make sense to grow it in areas with limited water resources? Saudi Arabia, which turned whole swathes of the desert green to grow crops, is beginning to cut back on the watering, preferring instead to import its food from other countries. In a globalised world, this seems sensible. As long ago as the Roman Empire, Sicily was the breadbasket of Rome. In addition, adopting different technologies for growing fruit and vegetables is essential. The drip system of irrigation is indispendable in a hot climate, but also successful is hydroponics, a technique for growing crops in water. It has been around since classical times and many locally grown fruits are produced using this method. Done correctly, it can produce the same amount of food using one-twentieth the amount of water. In countries where the groundwater is rapidly depleting, this makes sense. Rupert Wright is the author of Take Me To The Source: In Search of Water, published by Harvill Secker