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Agricultural Policy and Environment in Syria: The
Cases of Rangeland Grazing and Soil Management
by Gareth Edwards-Jones

5.1 Introduction

There are four good reasons why governments should be concerned about the environment: first, it provides a resource base which can be utilized to generate wealth and thereby help meet wider social needs (e.g. extraction of minerals, provision of timber and fish, provision of a fertile soil for agricultural production); second, it provides a range of ‘services’ which provide benefit to humans, (e.g. nutrient cycling, filtering of pollution, aesthetic beauty); third, a badly managed environment can cause real economic and socials costs, e.g. wind erosion damaging roads and buildings, pollution of water bodies impacting human health, salinization of soils leading to lost yields; and finally, there should be an ethical concern for other species and ecosystems.

However, governments’ resources, both financial and organizational, are limited and priorities have to be set. Further, a national environmental objective may often conflict with one or more of a government's sectoral objectives, such as increasing output or wealth. Similarly, environmental objectives may also conflict with the individual objectives of citizens. Hence, there are a range of barriers common to nearly all governments to the introduction of, and adherence to, policies for protecting and enhancing the environment. Many governments actually acknowledge the importance of environmental issues but place them down the policy agenda when faced with apparently more pressing, short-term issues, such as wealth generation and national security.

If governments are to act in the short term, then it is important that they act on the correct issues. One of the criteria for identifying such issues is reversibility, under which an environmental problem could be reversed at some future time should the right corrective action be undertaken. This important criteria for guiding environmental actions assumes that irreversible impacts may be deemed more pressing than reversible ones. A second criterion for identifying environmental issues of importance concerns their associated economic costs and benefits. For example, a certain resource may in theory provide long-term economic benefits if managed correctly, but if mismanaged these benefits may be reduced, or even disappear e.g. arable soils. Alternatively, a certain environmental problem may bring economic costs and rectifying the problem will reduce these costs, e.g. damage to infrastructure from soil erosion.

From these two criteria, reversibility and economic costs/benefits, it is possible to prioritize environmental issues that require immediate action because they would bring large long-term costs (or benefits foregone) if not addressed immediately.

Applying this rationale to Syria

This chapter reports part of a study of the impact of current agricultural policy on the environment of Syria. The study identified five aspects of the environment for specific consideration, i.e. water resources, the Syrian Steppe (Al Badia), soil conservation, forestry and biodiversity. An estimate of the reversibility and economic importance of these issues is shown in Table 5.1.

Table 5.1 Reversibility and economic importance of several environmental issues in Syria

Environmental issue


Known economic impact of loss per unit area

Known economic loss over whole of Syria

Extinction of species




Physical loss of soil (wind erosion)

Very long term

Very high

Very high

Chemical degradation of soil with heavy metals

Very long term

Very high


Pollution of ground waters with heavy metals

Very long term

Very high


Loss of natural ecosystems

Long term



Depletion of ground waters

Long term


Very high

Pollution of water bodies with nutrients

Medium term



Pollution of water bodies with diseased organisms

Medium term



Salinization of soils

Medium term

Very high

Very high

Loss of Steppe grazing lands

Medium term


Very high

‘Reversibility’ assumes that appropriate management is taken to enable the recovery process. Very long term = > 100 years, Long term = 10-100 years, Medium term = 4-10 years.

Source: Qualitative assessment, based on results of Edwards-Jones (2002).

Although this analysis is a very simple one, it does make some attempt to compare the relative importance of issues. More in depth analyses may confirm or refute these conclusions. However, they suggest that the most important issues for immediate action are those with high economic impacts over the whole of Syria, and which are only reversible over the long term. Thus the physical loss of soils appears to be the most urgent issue to be resolved, followed by depletion of groundwater, salinization of soils and the loss of Steppe grazing.[50]

The issue of water is dealt with in Chapter 13 of this volume. Accordingly the rest of this chapter will examine the other two major environmental issues identified in Table 5.1, namely management of the Syrian Steppe and degradation of Syrian soils. The chapter will outline the biophysical situation for each issue, detail the relevant social interactions and consider the impact of current agricultural policies. Finally some recommendations for policy changes which could reduce environmental degradation will be noted.[51]

5.2 The Syrian Steppe: Al Badia

a) Background and basic ecology

Al Badia comprises 55 percent of Syria’s land mass. It totals 10.2 Mha and receives less than 200 mm rain p.a. Pasture comprises 70 percent of Al Badia and this provides a grazing resource for six to seven months of the year. In 1950, there were 2.6 M sheep, against currently 10-12 million (the maximum number of sheep in Al Badia has been 15 million) (Table 5.2).

Table 5.2 Number of milking and non-milking ewes in Syria, 1985-1999


Milking ewes

Dry ewes



7 143 857

3 849 213

10 993 070


6 950 367

4 718 229

11 668 596


7 624 071

5 044 764

12 668 835


8 402 789

5 288 140

13 690 929


8 322 741

5 687 773

14 010 514


8 927 718

5 580 890

14 508 608


9 498 476

5 695 183

15 193 659


9 274 674

5 390 412

14 665 086


6 396 194

3 750 423

10 146 617


7 144 327

4 112 296

11 256 623


7 819 884

4 255 306

12 075 190


8 506 611

4 612 887

13 119 498


8 980 353

4 848 963

13 829 316


10 074 419

5 350 298

15 424 717


8 993 384

5 005 076

13 998 460

Source: MAAR.

There are between 900 000 and 1.5 million people in Al Badia, of which about 500 000 are settled. Traditionally a large proportion of the populations would have been nomads (herders without a permanent home who are always on move) and transhumance herders (people with a permanent home, who move with their sheep for some of the year). However, there has been a decline in the number of nomads over the last 50 years, and in 1990 there were an estimated 10 000 nomads, the rest being transhumance herders. The people in Al Badia represent 149 different cultural groups.

Nomadic lifestyles have tended to develop in parts of the world with sparse and erratic rainfall, as this system is able to utilize vegetation in certain areas at certain times of the year, and the long return times permit the vegetation to regenerate. For example, in the Syrian steppe the sheep graze on two main classes of fodder: perennial shrubs and perennial grasses. The shrubs tend to start putting on new growth in spring (end of April/May) and have completed their growth and fruit production by the end of September/October. The perennial grasses tend to flourish after the winter rains (November/December). Traditionally the herders would move their sheep away from the steppe around the beginning of May, largely because of a lack of water. The sheep then spent the summer grazing on crop residues in the north and west of Syria, and returned to Al Badia in the autumn (October/November). This system fitted in well with the biology of the fodder plants as it meant there was no grazing pressure during the summer months. This is important as the new growth, in spring and summer, is essential to the continued survival of the shrubs, which tend to store carbohydrates and other nutrients in their root stock. Summer grazing, which removes the new growth of the perennial shrubs, is extremely detrimental to the plants and will, if severe enough, kill them. Even total removal of aboveground winter biomass of perennial shrubs may not prevent successful growth and seeding of shrubs, as long as the grazing pressure is removed before shooting.

As the woody vegetation in Al Badia consists mainly of species of no or low palatability, dwarf shrubs are avoided until nothing else is available. In years with good early rainfall, annual plants and the perennial grass Poa sinaica are grazed from the time they emerge, and shrubs may not be browsed at all. At such times, e.g. 1997, herdsmen have no preference for plain areas or valleys, moving just to places where new growth is sufficient. But in years when autumn rains fail, the shrubby vegetation in the valleys and on the plains with shallow soils becomes more significant, providing at least some roughage while animals are maintained with supplementary feeds.

In summary, utilization of the range within Al Badia is governed by water and forage availability. Overall stocking density may be, to some extent, less important than the management of grazing over the year. Historically the pastoral Hema system and lack of water in the summer were probably the most effective factors in controlling grazing and maintaining forage plants (Masri, 1991).

b) History of relevant land use legislation

The socio-political history of Al Badia is a long and complicated one, and while understanding this process is important in understanding how the current situation has been derived, there is insufficient space here to recount this process in detail. However, it is important to note that their has been a continuing shift away from traditional transhumance, where different cultural groups had some property rights defined by cultural law, towards a system where there are no effective property rights over grazing resources. This shift has occurred as a result of numerous policies enacted since 1958. Details of these policies are given in Edwards-Jones (2002) and Ngaido (1997), but notable amongst them were policies creating cooperative groups of graziers who supposedly act together to manage resources and gain access to subsidized feed and water, and a policy in the 1970s which sought to encourage the growth of arable crops on Al Badia.

c) Al Badia in 2001

c1 Management institutions

There are currently 483 cooperatives existent in Al Badia (est.1974). While in theory these cooperatives have responsibility for given parcels of land, in fact their main role is to provide credit/feed to the graziers and they have little role in land management (Mirreh and Razzouk, 1997).

c2 Access to water

Al Badia’s main water resources are below ground aquifers, and wells are dug in order to provide water for humans and animals. The quality of the water varies with location. There are ancient wells in Al Badia which are really forms of collecting run-off, and historically would have been managed by tribes. Recently wells have been dug at the request of the cooperatives/herders according to a Government plan to provide a network of wells across Al Badia. The Government's Department of Badia identifies the sites for wells and the excavation and maintenance is done by the Ministry of Irrigation. The Government appoints labourers/guards to look after wells. The water, which is supposedly only for sheep to drink, is pumped into small reservoirs. It is a real open access resource as any one can use it - even herders outside the cooperative. Despite the availability of wells, almost all herders transport water in large tankers to Al Badia.

c3 Overgrazing

Deterioration of the Syrian Steppe has been documented in many reports (e.g. Al-Jundi, 2000; Telahigue, 1994; Masri, 1994). Most of these reports have been based on visual signs of the presence of soil erosion such as soil hummocking, pedestal plants, sheet and gully erosion. In addition, changes in the composition and abundance of plants have been noted, particularly the increasing dominance of less palatable species and disappearance of the more desirable plants. These reports suggest that degradation is caused largely by overgrazing, but other causes of degradation include removal of shrubs and use of motor vehicles.

c4 Removal of shrubs

Shrubs and trees are pulled up by local people for fuel and medicinal uses. The perennial shrubs are uprooted according to fuel desirability and include: Haloxylon articulatum, Salsola vermiculata, Artemisia herbaalba, Haloxylon salicornicum and Noea mucccconata. These plants are pulled up by their roots, thereby preventing any possible recovery of the plant, and also enabling erosion. The fuel is used for household purposes such as making tea, baking bread, cooking, winter heating and seasonal milk processing.

Such uprooting is an ancient practice and the amount of shrubs uprooted per capita is generally decreasing due to availability of Kerosene, methane and gas as well as improved standard of living. However, increased population densities mean that the overall level of uprooting is not decreasing, and may even be increasing. A survey undertaken by the Talila project suggest that annually 4.1 ha per family are cleared of shrubs.

c5 Motor vehicles

Large trucks are increasingly used to transport sheep and water around Al Badia. This serves to break the soil surface which again leads to erosion. The situation is worsened as the frequently used routes often become impassable due to the development of soft sand or mud. The drivers of the vehicles then drive around these areas, thereby increasing the area affected. On occasions, areas up to 1 km wide have been affected by vehicles to the extent that they are now impassable to them.

c6 Grazing protectorates

There are currently 33 grazing protectorates designated within Al Badia, comprising 400 000 ha. The aims of the protectorates are to rehabilitate grazing, to protect biodiversity, and to reduce soil erosion. They may also act as a grazing reserve for times of drought. These protectorates are marked in some way, such as with an earth fence, in order to enable herders to exclude sheep from them. When the protectorates were established, it was intended that grazing would be permitted twice a year (April and October) after three years of no grazing. However during the time of the study (2000/2001) none of the Protectorates were closed; rather, all were open in order to help the herders in a time of drought. Even when they are closed, the fines on graziers for entering protected areas are very small, at SP5.

d) Rehabilitation efforts

Why rehabilitate? Continuing rangeland degradation matters in the short term because the loss of good quality fodder will mean herders have an increasing reliance on purchased food stuffs, thereby reducing profitability. But in addition rangeland degradation enables continued loss of vegetation and soil, and eventually will reduce the rangeland to a desert of little agricultural or biodiversity value. Such an occurrence would have severe economic impacts on the country. Active rehabilitation of rangeland is needed as observations on several situations have not shown natural rehabilitation occurring over medium time scales. For example, on deserted ploughed lands in Al Badia unpalatable plants invaded first, and there is no evidence yet of more palatable plants replacing these unpalatable shrubs.

Al Badia Directorate has been undertaking rehabilitation over the last 30 years. The methods have generally been based on planting seedlings, which have been bred in nurseries. This method can require the use of large machinery, which themselves can cause erosion, and field irrigation. The method has been successful in certain areas, such as in the Aleppo Badia (rainfall 175 mm), but further work in the Talila project (rainfall 127 mm) has recently demonstrated that plants can easily be established from direct reseeding under rainfed conditions without using heavy duty equipment and without using irrigation. Seedling germination of 4 plants/m2 has been achieved with this method, and seedlings had a survival rate of 25 percent.

e) Policy assessment: Impacts of rangeland policy on the environment

The impact of the current agricultural policies on Al Badia can be summarized as follows:

(i) The lack of property rights over the land in Al Badia provides no incentive for long term management and leads to a classic case of ‘tragedy of the commons’.

(ii) The provision of increased numbers of wells enables sheep to remain on Al Badia longer into the summer, and to return earlier, than was historically the case. Studies of the biology of plant-animal interactions in Al Badia suggest that the impact of early summer grazing is extremely detrimental to the perennial shrubs in the area. It is also clear that these shrubs play an important role in maintaining the grazing resource. The provision of increased water to herders encourages them to keep grazing their sheep longer into the summer than is biologically sustainable. There is currently no policy signal to the herders encouraging them to leave Al Badia earlier in the year.

(iii) The provision of subsidized feed enables the maintenance of stocking densities above that which could be supported by the natural environment alone. Studies clearly demonstrate that the provision of concentrate feed enable herders to keep more sheep than would be the case in the absence of concentrate feed. The current policy signal to herders is that keeping many sheep must be a good thing, otherwise why would the Government provide ‘subsidized’ feed?

(iv) Establishing the grazing protectorates sent a clear policy signal that the Government felt there had been degradation of Al Badia. However, opening these protectorates to grazing a few years after their establishment sends the signal that these protectorates were probably not that important after all, and the Government cannot have been that concerned about rangeland degradation. This signal was reinforced by the low level of fines for entering the protectorates when they were functioning, and the simultaneous weak enforcement of even these low levels of fine.

(v) Revegetating large areas of Al Badia with native shrubs sends the signal that there had been degradation, and that the Government wanted to reverse this degradation.

(vi) Banning the cultivation of Al Badia sends the signal that this was an environmentally damaging activity.

f) Policy options for protecting the environment of Al Badia

Possible policy responses to the negative policy consequences noted above are sketched below.

f1 Redesign property rights

Certain groups should be given responsibility to manage given pieces of land for the benefit of their group. This will encourage good grazing management and by necessity good management of the steppe. The areas managed by a group should be small enough to maintain some identity within the group, but large enough to allow realistic management of sheep within the land available. Since natural resources in Al Badia are patchy in space and change over time, management areas have to be large enough to enable effective use of these patchy resources. It may not be best practice for these groups to be based on current cooperatives: some aggregation of the current cooperatives should be possible, perhaps reducing the number of grazing groups to less than 100. Penalties for utilizing land outside a herders’ specified ‘area’ without agreement should be strongly enforced. Membership of such groups should be as inclusive as possible, but also recognize the real users of any given parcel of land. As such, membership could be restricted to individuals who own sheep and can prove that they are regular users of the parcel of land in question.

f2 Provide incentives for good environmental management (the management plan)

While simple provision of property rights should bring about an improvement in the condition of Al Badia, it is possible to provide further incentives to the herders and to ‘compensate’ them for their reduced grazing levels. One way to do this would be to invite each grazing group to agree, with a suitable authority, to a ‘Management plan’ which would outline the number of sheep to be kept in the area, the agreed times of migration, the distribution of sheep between owners, likely migration routes, etc. Rather than being a strictly defined set of actions, the management plan could rely on an elected grazing committee to ensure adherence to the spirit of the plan. For example, migration out of the steppe would depend on range quality (as assessed by the grazing committee), not on a predetermined calendar date. The grazing committee should be small enough to be useful, but large enough to represent all groups of herder.

The plan could also include recommendations concerning the use of shrubs for fuelwood and medicinal purposes, and should designate certain routes as being suitable for use by motor vehicles. It should also be possible to agree which land could be available for rangeland rehabilitation, i.e. planting of seeds.

Should the grazing group adhere to their management plan, then after a suitable time, say two years, a fixed payment could be made to the group as a ‘reward’ for maintaining the environment. Such payments could be on an area basis, for instance, but they should not be related to the number of sheep or any other production related factor, in order to avoid any incentive to increase sheep numbers. The grazing group could decide how to distribute/utilize this money. Possible uses could include: paying a guard, providing compensation to those herders who reduced their flock, funding range rehabilitation, etc.

f3 Restrict further provision of water for stock

The provision of extra water to stock is clearly an important factor in the unsustainable growth of the sheep flock. Further provision of water for stock will only exacerbate the situation and send the signal to the herders that keeping the same amount, or more sheep is a desirable aim. Under a policy of management plans, the provision of water resources could be included as part of the plans.

f4 Alter provision of feed

Feed should be supplied at the market price, and the amount of feed allotted to any one herder should be fixed so as to prevent expansion of his flock beyond the current size. Clearly, in some years periods of drought may necessitate that more feed is provided. But the general rule should be that each herder only gets a fixed amount of feed according to his flock size at some given date, even if the flock should increase after that date.

f5 Cropping ban

Current restrictions on cropping should be maintained. Cultivation of Al Badia caused obvious environmental problems in the past. This should not be allowed to happen in the future.

f6 Research and monitoring

Long-term environmental monitoring programmes should be established across Al Badia and the results made widely available.

f7 Education of extension officers and herders in range management

An extensive education programme would inform extension officers, and herders, about good rangeland management. This should be an essential prerequisite to either the redesign of property rights and/or the management plan policy.

f8 Rehabilitation of vegetation

Continue to undertake rehabilitation of Al Badia, but consider the areas where such rehabilitation may be most useful. For example, Bichri Mountain is a known source of mobile sand, and has also been the site of a successful rehabilitation project and rehabilitation should continue here. Similarly, rehabilitation could be undertaken parallel to roads and around towns and villages.

5.3 Soil conservation and management

The soils of Syria spread over five orders of the 1975 USDA Soil Taxonomy (Ilaiwa et al.).

(i) Aridisols cover 47.5 percent of the country. They generally occur where the annual rainfall falls below 250 mm, and are thus the dominant soils in Al Badia, but also occur around Damascus. They are mostly characterized by Calcic or Gypsic horizons close to the surface, weak structure and relatively light texture, which predisposes them to erosion.

(ii) Inceptisols are the second most extensive soils, covering about 21.7 percent of the country. They are the prevailing soils in the rainfed areas in the north of the country and also in the areas to the east of the coastal mountains around Homs, Hama and Edleb. They are mostly characterized by Calcic horizons, heavy texture and moderate to strong structure.

(iii) Entisols are relatively young soils, occupying about 16.9 percent of the country. They are mainly found as shallow soils over the coastal and central mountain, or as alluvial soils in river terraces. They are the predominant soil in the Euphrates valley.

(iv) Vertisols are heavy textured cracking soils which occur over only 2.1 percent of Syria’s land mass. They mainly occur as associated soils with the Inceptisols and are most common in the north of the country between Aleppo and the Turkish border.

(v) Mollisols have a dark surface layer and well-developed structure, and only occur over 1.2 percent of the land. They are mainly confined to the coastal region.

a) Soil degradation

The soils of Syria suffer three main types of degradation: water erosion, wind erosion, and chemical degradation. Wind erosion affects the greatest area and chemical degradation the least (Table 5.3).

Table 5.3 Area of degraded soil

Degradation type

Degree of degradation (000 ha)

Total area (000 ha)

% of country affected




Water erosion




1 058


Wind erosion

1 210



1 620


Sand accumulation













2 138



3 211


Total area of Syria is 18.5 Mha of which 6.15 Mha agriculture and 8.2 Mha pasture.

Source: MAAR, cited in ERM, 1998a.

In total, 17.3 percent of Syria is affected by some form of degradation. The distribution of this damage can be mapped. The Human-Induced Soil Degradation map of Syria (Ilaiwa et al.) was prepared following GLASOD guidelines (an FAO methodology). This required the 1985 soil map of Syria to be divided into 68 physiographic units, each of which was then evaluated through a combination of literature based analysis and field survey. A discussion of the main three types of degradation is given below, along with some details of areas suffering particularly bad degradation.

a1 Water erosion

The areas most affected by water erosion are the coastal mountains and the mountainous regions in the arid/semiarid areas. The area of plateaus and plains remains largely unaffected.

The coastal mountains

The steep slopes, shallow soil cover, heavy rainfall (800-1500 mm) and frequent rain storms mean that, once vegetation is removed from these areas, they are naturally susceptible to water erosion. The natural vegetation of the region would probably be forest, however forest fires (deliberate and accidental) and forest clearance for agriculture have both served to reduce vegetation cover in the area. This inevitably leads to severe water erosion, and areas affected may never be recoverable. Some estimates for the coastal mountains suggest soil losses of up to 20 tonnes/ha/yr (ERM, 1998a).

Mountainous areas in the arid/semiarid regions

The natural vegetation of these areas would probably be forest also, but continued forest clearance for agriculture and timber has reduced this cover to a fraction of its former area (natural forests have gone from covering 30 percent of Syria to about 2 percent over the last 100 years). Here as well, water erosion has occurred exposing the bare rock in many places.

Plateaus and plains

These areas have not suffered much water erosion as they are flat, and the soils tend to have good structural stability even where rainfall is relatively high.

a2 Wind erosion

Wind erosion is the most serious form of soil degradation in Syria. Estimates of soil losses to wind erosion suggest that up to 12 t/ha/yr are lost in Al Badia (ICARDA pers. comm.). For the whole country, 570 000 tonnes of soil per day are lost to wind (ERM, 1998b).

Not only does wind erosion cause loss of soil from source points, it can also cause problems as it is carried on winds, and at its sinks. For example, Ilaiwa et al. report that in 1988, the action of moving sand grains was harmful enough to prohibit the growth of annual grazing grasses across large areas of Al Badia. The frequency, duration and severity of such dust storms vary tremendously between regions and years, and reports suggest that these storms have been getting worse in recent years (although no hard data are available to corroborate this observation). Two case studies (from Iliawa et al.) described below provide evidence on some of these issues.

Southern Mesopotamian plains

The area most affected by wind erosion is the area to the north east and south of the Euphrates. A few years ago, the area between the Balikh River north of Rakka in the west to the Khabour River in the east was among the best grazing lands in Al Badia. However, mechanized cultivation of rainfed barley initiated soil erosion in the 1950s. The windspeed in this region is generally greatest around September, when it ranges from 16 m/sec to 27 m/sec. The minimum wind speed required to transport soil particles is about 5 m/sec. Thus, the removal of the natural vegetation and the breaking up of the soil surface during cultivation inevitably led to wind erosion.

The wind carries the soil long distances in these flat areas. In some villages in the Governorate of Deir Elzzhor, sand can reach to the roof level of houses. Similarly, a 40 km stretch of the railroad is severely affected by sand; sand removal from tracks is needed every two to three days, and sometimes even daily during summer months.

A final impact of wind erosion in this area is that it may expose previously covered layers of soil with extremely high gypsum levels (usually more than 70 percent). Where the soil cover is greater than a few centimetres, production of annual grasses may still be possible. However, further reduction in soil cover will render many areas barren and unusable.

Bichri mountain

A similar situation has occurred in Bichri Mountain in the eastern part of the country. Traditionally this, was a grazing area, but rainfed barley cultivation was introduced into the area in the 1950s. The soil has a high erodibility due to its weak structure and coarse texture. Wind erosion has increased in recent years, as evidenced by sand accumulation in depressions, hummocks and large amounts being trapped by shrubs and other barriers.

Bichri Mountain is located in the central part of Al Badia and has large flat divides sloping east. For these reasons, it is believed to be a major source of wind-moved sand. Wind transports sand eastwards over long distances, for example shrubs over 1 m tall in uncultivated areas have been covered by sand in places more than 100 km away from the mountain. As in the northwest, sand moving from the Rasafa plains has seriously affected extensive grazing areas, and the layer of accumulated sand can be more than 30 cm deep.

A recent project between ACSAD and GTZ has sought to investigate the best means of managing a pilot area of the mountain in order to reduce erosion. Among a range of techniques tried, the most promising results were obtained with direct drilling of seeds of certain steppe herbs and shrubs.

a3 Chemical degradation - Salinization

Chemical degradation of soils is of two main types in Syria: salinization and industrial pollution. Only salinization is discussed here.[52]

The severity of salinization in Syria is analyzed with a four categories scale:

If EC is greater than 8, then agricultural productivity becomes low, and generally only barley will grow. If EC > 16 then no crops will grow. The areas most affected by salinization include the Euphrates and Khabour valleys, an area south east of Aleppo and an area in the extreme east of the country, north of Al Bukamal. The severity and extent of the salinization is shown in Table 5.4. The areas outside of the river valleys are generally low lying and to some extent are natural salt pans.

Table 5.4 Severity and extent of land impacted by salinization in Syria

Salinity class

Area affected (000 ha)

EC m moh/c.m

% of total

Very severe


> 16




8 - 16




4 - 8


Source: MAAR.

Irrigation in the Euphrates valley began during the fourth millennium BC, and soil salinization was first noted in the 1940s when large-scale irrigated agriculture became possible using diesel driven pumps. The process accelerated when cotton was introduced in the 1950s. The problem was caused by a combination of factors: the misuse of irrigation water and the absence of effective drainage systems, which led to a rise in the groundwater level. Evapotranspiration then led to salt accumulation in the root layer. So great was the impact that by the mid-1960s, large areas of this land had been abandoned. Soil salinity increases with distance from the river bank. This pattern is related to the drainage patterns of the land: land near the river has good natural drainage patterns, resulting in low salinity; at increasing distances from the river, there is increasing dependence on man-made drainage systems, which are not well made and are often poorly maintained. These drainage systems are often surface drainage, and do not perform well. Better systems are underground pipe drainage at a depth of about 1 m, and these are being introduced in some areas.

Land in the second Euphrates terrace, near Rakka, was brought under irrigation in the 1970s, and a survey undertaken in 1980 showed that severe salinization had occurred in about 24 percent of the area. This was largely due to the absence of good drainage systems within the project area.

Current policy allows for reclamation of land of high salinity (EC > 16). This requires improvement of the drainage systems (i.e. introduction of buried drains), better water management and the growing of only barley for two years. There are no scientific trial data available on the reclamation method, but experience to date suggests that within two seasons EC can be reduced from 16 to 8 EC. After reclamation, barley needs to be grown for at least two years before any other crops can be considered.

b) Costs and importance of soil degradation

The combined costs of soil degradation in Syria are estimated to be around US$319 million/year, with salinity having the greatest cost per hectare and the greatest overall cost (Table 5.5). These costs are projected to rise to SP17 700 000 000 by 2005 (ERM, 1998a). These estimates make soil degradation the most costly of the environmental problems considered (the others being water quality degradation and water depletion, air quality degradation, urban degradation, loss of biodiversity, damage to cultural heritage). Soil degradation was also ranked as the main issue of concern by stakeholder groups interviewed by ERM (1998a) during the development of the National Environmental Action Plan.

Table 5.5 Estimated costs of land degradation in Syria in 1997

Type of problem

Area affected (ha 000)

Cost/ha/yr (SP)

Total cost/yr (SP million)

Water erosion - coastal area

1 058

2 675

2 830

Wind erosion - steppe

1 620

1 370

2 219



105 390

9 485


14 534

Source: ERM 1998a.

c) Impacts of policy on soil management and conservation

There is no specific policy for the soils of Syria. Soil degradation is occurring because of the impact of policies related to water use on cultivated areas and resource management of Al Badia. It is clear that soil conservation is an important long-term issue for Syria, and needs to be dealt with effectively. The need for such actions is evident from the economic estimates of the costs of soil degradation and because of the role of soil degradation in desertification. Such policies are not easy to enact as they cut across a number of issues, such as: overgrazing in Al Badia; pulling perennial shrubs for heating and cooking; digging wells in Al Badia which enable more sheep to be kept; increased use of motor vehicles and development of roads in Al Badia; deforestation, and lack of environmental protection in the zones of mineral extraction. Many of these issues are dealt with in some detail by Edwards-Jones (2002) and will not be re-analyzed here. However, it is important to note that the causative processes of ‘desertification’ relate to the interaction of humans and the environment, and are therefore potentially influenced by policy.

The objectives of a national soil policy would encompass maintaining the productive capacity of the soil and preventing soil erosion. These objectives inform the following consideration of policy options.

d) Policy options

d1 Develop cropping patterns that minimize soil erosion

It would be useful to consider costs and benefits of encouraging the use of trees as living windbreaks and uncropped strips in fields and along water courses as means of reducing soil erosion. Research in Tunisia has shown that strips of 5 m can be effective in reducing erosion, but strips of 10-20 m are even more effective. Such biological elements are widely accepted elements of sustainable agricultural systems and the areas of natural vegetation will have several benefits. They act as a reservoir of natural enemies which will serve to keep pest populations under control, they reduce erosion, they act as a habitat for natural plant species and as a grazing resource for livestock. However, they may also compete with crops for land and water.

It is debatable how farmers should be encouraged to implement windbreaks and strips. It could be made compulsory for all farmers in certain regions to have to incorporate so many strips per ha. Alternatively, some kind of incentive system based on adhering to a management plan could be developed (cf. the management plan for Badia).

d2 Redirect resources from forestry and land clearing to combating desertification

It is doubtful that the resources used for clearing land, that subsequently goes to tree crops, are being used for the greatest environmental gain in the short term. The land currently being cleared is not causing environmental problems in its natural state, and prevention of current erosion may be a better use of these resources. This assumes that land clearing has the only purpose of environmental improvement, and if this is not the case, this suggestion may not be relevant. However, if environmental improvement is a major objective of the land clearing programme, then the money that supports it could be better spent on other environmental issues. Such a movement of resources may not be popular with some actors, but it may be in the national interest.

d3 Improve drainage in irrigated regions

Very saline land in the Euphrates valley has been reclaimed through the introduction of deep drains. The programme of introducing adequate drains into areas which are, or may become, salinised should be undertaken as soon as possible. No future public irrigation projects should go ahead without the inclusion of adequate drains.

The introduction of drainage does not bring any immediate economic benefit, but it does prevent a developing environmental cost: salinization. Given the growing population of Syria, and its relative land shortage per head, it is essential that currently productive land is not lost over future years. Drainage is the only way to reclaim currently salty lands and prevent future losses.

d4 Monitoring of soil degradation

Establish a network of monitoring sites for soil quality and erosion across all agricultural systems in Syria. Some good data are available for certain areas of Syria, but these tend to be undertaken as part of fixed time-scale projects and/or by external agents such as ICARDA and ACSAD. Consistent long term data are needed to guide policy decisions. Such monitoring studies could be undertaken in association with a research programme aimed at identifying reclamation methods for saline soils.

5.4 Conclusion

The environmental issues of importance for Syria are clear: soil conservation, protection of ground waters, salinization of soils and degradation of the grazing resource of Al Badia. This chapter has considered two of the most important environmental issues facing Syria at the start of the 21st Century: management of Al Badia and soil degradation. Other important issues include water use, biodiversity protection, forest management and use of agricultural chemicals. Many of these issues are common with a range of countries in arid regions and it is interesting to note that that neither their cause nor their potential for management is necessarily related to the prevailing political system. Historically, both laissez-faire capitalist systems, such as in the United States, have brought environmental problems, as have the centralized systems of the former Soviet Union and other countries. Indeed it is worth noting that in several developing countries the process of economic adjustment and the withdrawal of Government from a central planning role have seen a worsening in their environmental problems. Several analysts now agree that there may be more of a role for Government in managing the environment then some free-market economists had previously thought (Lee and Barrett, 2001). It may not simply be enough to offer economic incentives on their own, although they may be important as part of a package; a combination of market economics, Government control and Government incentives may rather be needed to achieve good environmental management. However, one vital part of this package is that Government removes any signals or incentives, which may be contained within sectoral policies, for citizens to degrade the environment. The removal of such incentives is as important as the development of new policies to tackle the identified problems.

[50] A formal cost/benefit analysis (CBA) could aid such a decision, however there is much debate about the relevance of CBA to environmental problems which occur over long time periods, i.e. hundreds of years. For this reason, and lack of data, only a qualitative assessment of issues is undertaken here, but a more complete assessment would be possible given more time and data.
[51] Further detailed discussion of each of these issues, and relevant cross-cutting themes is given in Edwards-Jones (2002).
[52] Further details on industrial pollution in Edwards-Jones (2002).

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