Energy and environmental technology Environment

Posted November 1999

Field Document TC:GCP/SYR/003/ITA
FAO Italy Government Cooperative Programme
Range Rehabilitation and Establishment of a Wildlife Reserve
in the Syrian Steppe

Syria: Photovoltaic solar energy systems for the Bedouin

by Bart van Campen
Rural Energy Development Officer
Environment and Natural Resources Service (SDRN)

Outline/questionnaire | Preliminary paper | Syria project

Al Badia (the steppe area) takes up 55% of Syria’s land mass and is also known as the fifth settlement zone. Because of its low rain fall (< 200 mm yearly rainfall on average), it is mainly considered grazing land. Al Badia plays an important role in the Syrian economy because it hosts the majority of the herds of small ruminants - especially sheep - and supplies 650,000 with their main source of income. The people have developed a nomadic 'Bedouin’ lifestyle, moving with their flocks between pasture areas. Over the last decades the number of sheep has risen dramatically: 33% between 1982 and 1992 (Nesheiwat, 1994), causing high pressures on the natural resource base. A sizeable part of the sheeps’ nutrients have to be supplied from supplementary concentrate food.

Lifestyle and income

The target area of the Rangeland Rehabilitation and Establishment of a Wildlife Reserve in the Syrian Steppe project (GCP/SYR/003/ITA) is about 139,000 ha. which is located east of Palmyra and is divided into four areas: the Talila Wildlife Reserve and 3 areas under control of different sheep-raising cooperatives (Arak, Munbateh and Abassia). In total the project directly targets ca. 460 (extended) households.

Nomadic lifestyle

60 % of the target population is migratory and they permanently live in tents. 24% of the population is semi-settled, living both in houses and tents (depending on the time of the year). 15% of the population is settled and permanently lives in a house in one of the 2 villages: Arak and Munbateh. These villages boast a school, public phones, clinics, etc. Only the Arak village has a grid connection.

Literacy and information

Although the Bedouin have a relatively high income, they generally live in relatively simple circumstances. Their nomadic lifestyle causes a high illiteracy rate: 85% of the respondents was illiterate and 96% of their wives. Of the younger generation still 76% of the male children and 83% of the female children is illiterate.

This has led to the advice that using printed extension materials should be avoided because of high illiteracy rate among Bedouins. There is however an indication that new ideas are spread quickly among Bedouins using their traditional system of communication

Earnings and income

The nomadic Bedouin receive their income primarily from the herding of sheep (only 2 - 3% goats). Only few households have an additional source of income: 17% earns some additional income from handicrafts and 9% from other jobs.

herd size


< 150








>1000 (max 2000)


Source: Razzouk, 1998

The average herd size in Palmyra is 441 sheep. Similar figures are reported from other sources for the greater area of Al Badia: A figure reported by the statistical office of MAAR shows that 70% of Bedouin households of Al Badia own 150-300 sheep (Khazma, 1997; Guidi 1997). Nesheiwat (1994) reports that 60% of Bedouin in El Badia own from 100 to 300 sheep.

On the basis of median flock size a rough estimate of yearly income earnings can be made around 140,000-175,000 S.P. income (3,000 - 3,800 US$). For comparison: average yearly income in 4 villages electrified with PV by JICA/SSRC was 68,500 to 77,000 S.P.

Other indicators of relatively high income are that 67% of the Bedouin own a TV (generally small black and white TV) and 80 % own at least one truck or tractor; many (33%) have both (Razzouk, 1998). In general one could say that the nomadic Bedouin have a relatively good income and a high capital stock. Many Bedouins pay their dowries (often 200,000 S.P. or more) and buy their trucks on cash.

The incomes are always very seasonal, however, with a peak in lamb and wool sales in spring time and a minimum in the winter period (November to February) when they need to buy feed for their sheep and when income from lamb, wool and milk sale is down. This is when they have to buy feed on credit at high interest rates.


The large majority of respondents (70%) do use credit but almost exclusively for the purchase of supplementary feed for their sheep. All of these credits are obtained from the private sector: either being the feed merchant, the Jabban (milk/cheese merchant who gives advance credit on milk purchase) and friends or relatives.

Pay-back periods range from 1 - 6 months. 63% of the Bedouin report easy access to credit, but also complain about high interest rates (up to 100%). Feed merchants prefer to sell on credit because the maximum cash sales price of feed is set by government. This is not the case for feed sold on credit.

No other credit from the government is reported. In general the policy of the Syrian government is to support agricultural development through easy credits on low (negative real) interest rates and large recovery periods (up to 10 years, with grace periods up to 5 years). Most of these credits are made available through the Agricultural Cooperative Bank and the cooperative structure (which also exists for the Bedouins). However the items for which credit is made available are generally not required by the Bedouin. A special feedstock credit program was suspended some 5 years ago, reportedly because of recovery problems. This year the government supplied emergency feed on credit (3 year, 0% interest), because of the extreme drought.

Energy use and expenditures

Despite their relatively high incomes, the nomadic Bedouins have a simple life-style with - therefore - a low energy use, but also a - presumably - low quality output. In the (semi)-settled areas energy use is higher (both qualitatively and quantitatively). In Arak all houses (199) are connected to grid and electricity is widely used for TV, refrigeration, lighting. In Munbateh (50 households) 19 are connected to diesel generators; while 37 households are not electrified. They use butane gas, dry cells and batteries for TV and lighting. All use butane gas for cooking. The nomads mainly use energy for:

  1. cooking
  2. space heating in winter
  3. domestic hot water for bathing, washing clothes and cleaning
  4. lighting and audiovisual equipment

Some use cool boxes and buy ice if available to cool drinks. The use of energy for these services will be discussed in more detail below. Some typical energy baskets and budgets are then described.


The main sources of energy for cooking are butane gas, kerosene and woody biomass; depending on availability and income. The woody biomass used consists mainly of agricultural residues, shrubs and camel dung. Especially the use of shrubs is a concern to rangemanagement authorities, because these shrubs are dug up with roots, which actually constitute the best part of woody biomass. It seems however that - partly because of availability constrictions - more and more of the cooking relies on kerosene and butane gas (relatively more kerosene for the less prosperous). The traditional bread should however be prepared with woody biomass (any of the types mentioned) because the Bedouins prefer the taste. Bread making only represents a small % of biomass use, while for instance space heating consumes far larger amounts of biomass.

Space and water heating

Winters can get very cold in the Badia area, especially in lightly isolated tents. The Bedouins mainly use open fires to heat themselves in the evening, mainly using biomass (shrubs) in open fires, which are very inefficient and consume large quantities of woodfuel. The Ministry of Agriculture estimated in 1986 that 75% of shrub use was for space heating in the 6 cold months of the year, every household burning 80 kg; totally 15 million shrubs being uprooted per year. This process has a mayor impact on the degradation of the Steppe. Some Bedouins mention they buy fuelwood if necessary, spending up to 3,000 S.P./month on buying 1 ton of fuelwood.

Open fires make good ventilation necessary, which in its turn reduces the insulation capacity of the tents. Despite ventilation Bedouins complain that the smoke affects their health, especially for children.

Alternatives do exist and are locally available: settled Bedouins use diesel stoves or more rarely (more expensive) kerosene stoves (both locally made of cast iron). The stoves are generally in one room and through pipes the heat is taken to other rooms. In their well insulated houses this provides enough heat and opens the possibility to put the smelly stoves (esp. diesel) in a room that is not used too much. The same stoves are used to produce hot water.

The same system couldn’t be applied to the nomadic Bedouins, because their tents are less well insulated and pipework is difficult to install in tents. But any kind of stove with a chimney, would introduce the possibility for the Bedouin to improve the insulation of their tents and increase burning efficiency. Since diesel and kerosene stoves are possibly too smelly, wood or butane gas stoves could be an option (both locally available). A stove would have the additional advantage that they could be used simultaneously for heating water, which is done with butane gas or kerosene now, saving on fuel use. A detailed cost price analysis and an investigation into the Bedouins attitude would be necessary. Examples and experience could be borrowed from other countries and projects; e.g. Mongolia, where nomads heat their well-insulated tents with wood-stoves under even harsher winter conditions (up to - 10oC or more). The FAO Regional Wood Energy Development Program in Asia has ample experience in improved stoves and stove dissemination programmes.

Lighting and audiovisuals

The nomadic Bedouin mainly use butane gas lamps (generally 1) for lighting, which provide a good light, generally for the main sitting area of tent. For other purposes they use hurricane lamps and flash lights both for lighting in kitchen and other areas; and outside for tending the herds.

TV use is regarded as top priority for electricity use. 67% of the respondents own a television and watch it regularly. They mainly use truck batteries for their TV (80% having a vehicle to recharge their battery), which has the disadvantages of reducing lifetime of the batteries (reported reducing life-time from 2 years to ½ year) and non- availability if the vehicle is gone for a few days. The majority also owns radio, but TV is more popular.

Typical energy baskets and budgets

On the basis of interviews Guidi (1997) described 2 energy baskets and budgets for different socio-economic levels of nomadic Bedouins. Level 2 would represent the more prosperous Bedouins making up 39% or more of the population.

Energy service demand Energy consumption Monthly energy expenditures

Level 1

1 kerosene lamp
1 flash-light
radio (2h/day)
TV (3h/day)
15 lt. kerosene
6 dry cells
240 S.P.
kerosene and butane
50 lt kerosene
15 kg. butane gas
605 S.P.

Level 2

1 kerosene lamp
1 butane gas lamp
2 flash-lights
radio (2h/day)
TV (5 h/day)
10 lt. kerosene
20 kg butane
10 dry cells
390 S.P.
kerosene and butane
40 lt kerosene
40 kg. butane gas
680 S.P.

Evaluating the solar home system experiment

In spring 1998 4 photovoltaic solar energy systems were installed with different Bedouin families, that were selected by the Bedouin groups themselves (generally the more prosperous representatives/leaders).

The systems used were simple Solar Home Systems with 1 panel of 80 Wp or 2 panels of 55 Wp (simulating 2 different energy demands), with 2 lights (9 W PL-lights), a connection for a TV (b/w) and a charge controller. The systems were slightly oversized to avoid the chance of failure through overuse in winter in such a delicate first stage of demonstration.

The systems were mounted on a framework put on the ground with 2 angle positions: one for winter, one for summer, to optimise energy production. The ground framework was chosen for its ease of installation and transport and the high wind speeds in some periods of the year, which caused fear of loss of the panels.

The end-users were instructed how to use and maintain the system, change the angles and - if necessary - even change the position of the system relative to the sun (tracking). A small leaflet with only pictures was produced to support the end-user instruction. One member of every family was instructed to keep a registration of hours of use of PV-electricity for lighting and TV and of possible problems. No problems were encountered

Because of the extreme drought this year, most Bedouins had left the project area during the time of the mission. It took great effort therefore to locate those Bedouins that were using the PV-systems. One system had broken (presumably by a stone). Of the 3 remaining systems, 2 were tracked down and evaluated. The owners and families were interviewed. In autumn 1998 (Razzouk, 1999) - 4 months after the installation of the systems, 85 households were interviewed, including the 4 owners of the systems. This completed the picture of the attitude of Bedouins towards the PV-systems.

Performance of the systems

One of the main concerns the respondents in the 1998-interviews expressed, was the functioning of the solar systems during the winter period (December-January), in which solar irradiation - and therefore energy production - drops sharply, especially if the right angle is not chosen for the panels. On top of that, because of shorter, colder and darker days, energy consumption (especially lighting) is likely to be higher. In the July 1999 interviews no problems were reported, however, except the blowing of a fuse for one of the systems. Never (even in the minimum insolation periods of December/January) was the battery voltage ever low enough to activate the low-charge indicator and LVD.

Some minor problems were observed and mentioned to the owners:

The results of recording show that the users of the systems use an average of 7 hours of TV per day and 3 hours of light (2 lamps). The TVs used were of the small b/w-type (16 - 20 W). The third remaining system is also reported to work well.

The only comment the present owners made was the need for a protection cover for the panels during transport. At present they use a few blankets to protect the panels, but a wooden cover would protect the panels more.

When asked the advantages of the solar systems, the four present owners mentioned:

  1. They can watch television at any time.
  2. They stay awake for more time during the night if they are not tired.
  3. They save some money that they used to spend on buying butane gas, kerosene, and spare parts for lighting.
  4. The total number of visitors has increased significantly.
  5. Bedouin women start to wash, sew, knit, and prepare the food for next day.
  6. The general atmosphere that prevails during their stay at night turns to be more pleasant.
  7. They start to play cards and do some work, such as shearing, that they could not do them during the night in the past.
  8. They can see scorpions and snakes at night from long distances, therefore, they can protect themselves.

Bedouins’ attitude towards the systems

Of the 85 households interviewed in October 1998, 52% of which (44) were not in the project’s target population. For these only 55% had heard or seen the solar systems, against 80% of the respondents belonging to the cooperatives that work with the project; reflecting the personal communication channels through which this experience was promoted. Several respondents insisted that water points should be used to increase promotion of the solar systems

All respondents that had seen or used the solar system (30 in total) indicated that the system is easy to operate and has a satisfactory performance. Several indicated their worry whether the system would continue the same performance in winter. The evaluation of this mission shows that no problems occurred during winter.

More than half (17 or 57%) indicated that the lights (PL) are a bit yellowish and that they prefer sharper lights and stronger, e.g. from TL-lights (8 or 15 W). Also more than half (64%) would prefer 1 or 2 lights to be added, although it was explained that this would mean a bigger system and more investment. This is because most Bedouins divide their tent in 2 or 3 parts (sitting room, 1 or 2 bedrooms, kitchen) and sometimes have a separate tent for the kitchen. Of the 4 system owners, 3 were satisfied with the lights as they are.

When those who had seen the systems were asked what additional appliances they would like to use that were not presently met by the solar systems, refrigerators were the most mentioned (61%), followed by colour television (33%).

Willingness to buy

46% of those that have seen the systems (30) was willing to buy a system 'this year’(1998). Of the 4 owners 75 % were willing to buy the same year. Only one, however, was willing to buy it immediately on cash. The rest would prefer paying in instalments, although this would increase costs.

Of those not willing to buy the system 'this year’ (33) 48% indicated that they would want to await the testing and performance of the system for some more time, lack of money was mentioned by 43% and 6% (2 people) already owned an electrical generator.

The July 1999 interviews elaborated on this subject. Both of the system owners and 2 other families, insisted on the satisfaction with the panels, but also stressed their preference for payment on credit. A system sold on cash should not cost much more than 30,000 S.P. with at least 2 lights (3 hours) and 4 - 5 hours of TV.

When shown solar lanterns all Bedouins were very enthusiastic. They intend to use them for use in different areas of the tend and for tending the herd. They give far more light than the kerosene wick lamps and because they are made of plastic they don’t break as easily as these hurricane lanterns. Many were willing to pay between 4,000 and 6,000 S.P. for a solar lantern that would give them 2 - 3 hours of good light (8 W) per night.

Other PV-demonstration projects with Palmyra Bedouin

On top of the demonstration project with the Solar Home Systems for the Bedouins, the MAAR/FAO-project (GCP/SYR/003/ITA), also bought 4 solar lanterns in 1998 for use by the project facilitators and 2 solar systems for refrigeration and lighting. The latter two were installed at a guard post near the reserve and at the Reserve’s information centre, which is to boast a video room in the near future as well. The systems were functioning very satisfactorily and in 1999 the project decided to procure 2 more refrigeration and lighting systems (under installation) and 24 solar lanterns.

In training works shops work with young Bedouin women it was analysed that the solar systems - especially the solar lanterns - were perceived enthusiastically (Gritli, 1998). It was advised to distribute the solar lanterns under the young facilitators as an incentive to these volunteer facilitators and to strengthen the relation between the facilitators and the project. The solar systems could be used among others to facilitate education and income generating activities in the evening, especially for women. The Women’s Union in Palmyra has shown interest in these applications and would like to promote this technology in their activities.

The Al Badia Directorate of MAAR (situated in Palmyra), has shown interest in procuring refrigeration and lighting systems for guard posts at isolated wells and pumping stations they operate throughout Al Badia (at least 200).

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