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Irrigation Water Policies in Syria: Current
Developments and Future Options
by Consuelo Varela-Ortega and Juan A. Sagardoy

13.1 Introduction

In Syria as in many other countries of the Near East region, water is becoming progressively scarce as future demand is coming close or even surpassing available resources. Hence water use efficiency in all sectors is becoming a matter of economic, social and political concern, and water policies are at the core of the nation’s economic policy discussions. This crucial issue is particularly relevant for the agricultural sector in Syria, which uses up to 85 percent of all the available water resources in the country (FAO-MAAR, 1999).

Irrigated agriculture has increased steadily in Syria over the last decades, almost doubling since 1985. This mounting pace has responded to the nation’s food security policy objectives to satisfy the food production needs of an increasing population that features one of the largest growth rates in the world (3,50 percent in 1985 and still 2,54 percent from 1995-2000) (FAO-MAAR, 1999, 2001). Recently, the notion of food security, formerly assimilated to food self-sufficiency, has been redefined into a more flexible concept oriented to increase production of certain crops that profit from comparative advantage. Consequently, exports of these products can counterbalance the need to import other commodities (Sarris, 2001).

As the economy in Syria has been primarily based on agriculture, agricultural policies have been shaped by the general state-led import substitution development policies that have prevailed for the last decades and are currently being liberalized. The major strategy for agricultural production has been self-sufficiency in the principal food staples, instrumented through the Government’s annual agricultural production plan. Despite significant liberalization in the last years, the introduction of incentives to stimulate private sector exports and to liberalize imports, the state still plays a major role in production and trade. At present, the state maintains a heavy intervention in the purchasing and marketing of the strategic agricultural products (cotton, tobacco, sugar beet, wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas) as the private sector trades in fruit and vegetables and livestock products. The Government grants crop licenses to the farmers which entitles them to obtain subsidized loans and inputs and to sell the produce to the state agencies at the Government’s support prices. Therefore the agricultural sector benefits from considerable protection, which implies a large share of the public budget. Total expenditures for irrigated agriculture accounted for almost 70 percent of all expenditures in agriculture (Sarris, 2001).

In this context, the main purpose of this study is to analyze water management policies in Syria in the framework of the recent developments towards more market-oriented agricultural policies. A growing preoccupation in Syria is the design and implementation of sustainable irrigation water policies aimed at increasing the efficiency of water use in agriculture and at conserving water resources by reducing future consumption. Of major importance in this context is the adoption of modern irrigation technologies at the farm level, which is already profiting from considerable support by the government agencies implicated. However, its wider adoption may require additional incentives and other supporting measures. On-farm improvements must be accompanied by similar policies at the network level to increase their efficiency. Such measures need to be evaluated in technical and economic terms at national and at system’s level.

The study consists of the analysis of the irrigation water sector in Syria and its related water policies, for which an explicit methodology has been developed. The investigation includes two major parts at different levels of aggregation. One is devoted to analyzing the irrigation water sector in Syria at national aggregated level and at regional basin’s level. The other part is a disaggregated farm level analysis. In both cases, simulations of different scenarios have been carried out to permit short- and long-term assessments of different policy alternatives for conserving water resources in Syria and their effects at national, regional and farm levels.

13.2 Structure and performance of the irrigation sector

a) Irrigated lands and irrigation techniques

From the 18.5 million ha of total lands of the Syrian Arab Republic, cultivated land extends over an area of 5 484 000 ha, of which 1 213 000 is irrigated land (22 percent), 3 655 000 ha is rain-fed land (67 percent) and 616 000 ha is fallow land (11 percent) (FAO-MAAR, 2001). Irrigated lands are not distributed evenly across the country and most concentrate along the Euphrates River, in the coastal areas and in the central regions. The size of the irrigated holdings is substantially smaller than the size of the rain-fed holdings and varies distinctively across regions (governorates). At the national level, the average holding size is 9.2 ha (Figure 13.1) and for irrigated farms is 3.6 ha (Figure 13.2). Larger holdings grow mostly extensive crops such as wheat and cotton, as more intensive crops such as sugar beet, potato, tomato and maize are grown predominantly on medium size farms. Vineyards are basically grown in reclaimed mountain and hill areas, whereas intensive crops such as vegetables are grown primarily in the coastal smaller farms and in the outskirts of the urban districts. Fruit trees are planted largely in rainfed lands in newly reclaimed territories in the central regions and also in the coastal areas. The distribution of the irrigated areas by basins is reflected in table 13.1.

Figure 13.1 Average size of holdings by governorate (total lands) (ha)

Figure 13.2 Average size of irrigated holdings by governorate (ha)

Source: Author's elaboration based on Bureau of Statistics. Agricultural Census (1999).

Table 13.1 Irrigated area by basin (1999-2000)




Rivers & Springs

Regular Irrigation Networks

Total 1999-2000

Total of the Basin




69 073

38 129

76 245

183 447

432 835

Over exploited


79 118

3 875

41 622

124 615

Assad Establishment



16 927

16 927

Deir Ezzor

42 504

53 240

12 103

107 846



4 295

2 270

37 309

43 874

72 132


8 701

3 592

15 965

28 258


Al Hasakeh

314 050

29 073

60 952

404 075

404 075

Over exploited



8 308


20 000

28 673

34 299


1 938


2 485

4 515

Al Sweida




1 021

Orontos + Al Badia


24 751

6 623

22 932

54 306

257 298


47 245

4 849

7 679

59 773


35 558

1 897

6 854

44 309

Al Ghab

16 040


58 858

74 991


5 783

2 179

15 957

23 919

Barada & Awag

Rural Damascus

57 282

16 685


73 967

75 429

Over exploited





1 462


715 509

164 041

396 518

1 276 068

1 276 068

Source: Committee for the Irrigation Season 1999-2000. Ministry of Irrigation. Munther (2001).

Surface irrigation is the prevailing irrigation system in Syria covering 95 percent of the irrigated area. Basin irrigation is the predominant technique used in surface irrigation and most of the irrigated wheat and barley are irrigated by this method. Irrigation field efficiency is reportedly low, often around 40 percent in the old networks (50 years) and around 60 percent in the more recent ones (15 years). Furthermore, the construction of ridges for the basins implies a loss of productive land which could be assessed between 5 and 10 percent reducing further the productivity of the land. Cotton and vegetables are irrigated by furrows, but because the land is rarely leveled the efficiency of such technique is also low.

Table 13.3 indicates that the average consumption of the irrigated hectare is 12 434 cubic meters per year, and that the average consumption of the irrigated hectare in the Euphrates Basin is 16 750 cubic meters per year. This is a significantly huge quantity that necessitates a serious reconsideration of the irrigation methods and shifting to modern irrigation systems. In response to these needs, the Government of Syria has taken several actions to ensure water conservation. These actions have been implemented by a number of legal decisions enacted along 2000 and 2001, which concern the rehabilitation of old irrigation systems and the conversion to modern irrigation in a four-year period. (see Policy Matrix in heading 3). The main objective of these decisions is to reduce the annual water consumption from 12 434 to 7 000 m3 per ha. At present only 10 percent of the total irrigated surface (127 000 ha) is equipped with modern irrigation techniques such as sprinkler or drip irrigation (MAAR, 2001).

b) Management of irrigation systems

The Ministry of Irrigation is responsible for the planning, design and management of dams and public irrigation systems that cover about 400 000 ha. There are also numerous small- and medium-size irrigation networks which operate with waters coming from rivers or springs and which are managed by cooperatives. In these irrigation systems, land holdings tend to be very small and the cooperative is responsible for providing a large number of services to their associates, such as the maintenance of the irrigation system, the distribution of water, the provision of inputs and the sale of produce. Water distribution is normally organized by groups of farmers who receive water from the same canal. The water in the main canal and pumping station is managed by a hired person or sometimes by the leaders of the cooperative. Water in the lateral canals is generally distributed on an established rotation.

Total irrigated area by wells is 715 509 ha, of which 44 percent are in Al Hassakeh (Khabour basin). The total number of wells is 201 259, out of which about one-fourth were not licensed in 1999 (MAAR, 2001; Munther, 2001). This situation provoked the enacting of a special decree stating the obligation of licensing all wells by 2001 alongside the Government’s decision to encourage the adoption of modern irrigation technologies by the farmers. About three-quarters of the wells use fuel as primary energy and only the remaining quarter use electricity. Well depth and discharge rates are quite variable. In groundwater areas most of the wells are private and water is used on the farm of the owner of the well, and sometimes it includes those plots of farmers located nearby. According to field survey’s data, farmers who have excess water capacity in their wells sell some of the extra water to neighbours.[85]

c) Water fees and recovery of irrigation costs

In the public irrigation systems, operation and maintenance costs of the irrigation and drainage networks are charged through a flat fee of SP3 500/ha for permanent irrigation and SP600/ha for winter irrigation. These fees were determined under a legal regulation established in 1999. It is interesting to note that the national average coincides practically with the amount charged as a flat rate. Actual cost of operation and maintenance for pump irrigation is considerably higher (SP5 594/ha) than for gravity irrigation (SP1 708/ha.) as could be expected, and it has been reported that the percentage of payment of the established Operation and Maintenance (O&M) fees is close to 90 percent, which is very high for world standards. Beneficiaries from the public irrigation systems are also subject to a fee, which intends to recover a percentage of the investment costs and ranges between SP2 000 to SP7 000/ha. The capital costs fees are regulated by several legislative decrees issued to recover the cost of the specific irrigation projects (MAAR, 2001a, Kaisi et al, 2000).

d) Water resources

The water resources of Syria are very limited compared to the needs of the country and estimations show that available resources amount to 16 058 million m3/year as total uses reach 19 162 million m3/year (Tables 13.2 and 13.3). In consequence, the water balance for Syria is negative with a deficit of 3 104 million m3/year varying distinctively across basins. In fact, only three basins have a positive balance and the remaining have considerable negative balances. Deficits ranged between 94 million m3 in Al Yarmouk basin and 3 106 million m3 in Al Khabour basin due to the expansion of the irrigated area, a disproportionate and often uncontrolled development of wells and the severe drought. The magnitude of the deficit in Al Khabour indicates that it will be difficult to correct it without special strict measures.

Syria has important groundwater resources estimated at 5 395 million m3, which represents 37 percent of the total water resources of the country. The best aquifers concentrate in the western and northern regions but most have been over-exploited except for the Coastal and Al Badia basins. Water tables have decreased enormously in many areas, up to 57 meters in the Orontos basin during the period 1990-1999, which has led to the prohibition for drilling new wells by recently enacted legal decisions.

Considering the severe water scarcity in Syria, the adoption of modern irrigation techniques is crucial for the country’s development of irrigated agriculture. In fact, the related authorities such as the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Irrigation are actively encouraging irrigation modernization policies. According to the statistics available average water use in irrigation is 12 434 m3/ha and the adoption of modern technologies should reduce it to 8 000 m3/ha. The area equipped with modern irrigation techniques in year 2000 was 126 719 ha, of which 88 percent was under sprinkler irrigation and 12 percent under drip irrigation. Most of these techniques (95 percent) were installed in areas irrigated by wells. The rate of adoption of modern irrigation techniques from 1999 to 2000 was 37 686 ha as compared to 19 641 ha for the period 1998-1999. (MAAR, 2001a&b; Somi et al, 2001). However, interviews with manufacturers of irrigation equipment indicated that they are operating below installed capacity. Quality control does not take place systematically and prices of irrigation equipment at present are comparable to international prices, and their imports are liberalized.

Table 13.2 Available water resources by basin


Barada & Awag


Al Badia

Orontos (Al Asi)


Al Khabour

Euphrates & Tigris


Rain fall (actual/average)









Water resources (surface)

million m3





1 246


6 818

9 194

Water resources (underground)

million m3







2 494

5 395

Water resources (total)

million m3




1 630

1 868


9 312

14 589

Utilization rate










Actually available

million m3




1 386

1 214


9 126

13 332

Domestic & industrial waste water

million m3









Agricultural drainage

million m3








2 031

Total available for use

million m3

1 277



1 831

1 257

1 371

9 981

16 058

Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, Arab Republic of Syria (MAAR, 2001a).

Table 13.3 Present water uses and water balances


Barada & Awag


Al Badia

Orontos (Al Asi)


Al Khabour

Euphrates & Tigris


Water use

Irrigated area


75 429

34 299

3 871

253 427

72 132

404 075

432 835

1 276 068

Irrigation requirements


16 000

10 500

11 000

9 100

6 000

10 600

16 700

12 429

Irrigation water use

million m3

1 207



2 306


4 283

7 228

15 860


million persons









Requirements per person

m3/per capita

2 000

2 000

2 000

2 000

2 000

2 000

2 000

2 000

Domestic water use

million m3








1 042

Industry water use

million m3










million m3







1 643

1 990

Total uses

million m3

1 588



2 687


4 477

9 249

19 162


million m3






-3 105


-3 104

Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, Arab Republic of Syria (MAAR, 2001a).

13.3 The policy framework

In the last years, the Government of Syria has enacted a considerable amount of legal regulations and decrees that relate to irrigation water. This active legislation development evidences the importance that water resources have for the Syrian economy. From 1999 to 2001, the legal framework that affects irrigation water has been thoroughly modified and strict measures have been taken into action (Varela and Sagardoy, 2001, annex 1).

The policy matrix on the following page summarizes the policies related to irrigation water in Syria according to policy objectives, policy strategies and policy measures. The legal regulations developed recently in Syria respond to specific policy objectives that are namely: (i) conservation of water resources; (ii) food security and food production targets; and (iii) settlement of nomad population. Each policy objective includes several policy strategies which are implemented by different policy measures.

With the objective of reducing water use, the Government of Syria (GOS) has decided that all irrigated areas will be equipped with modern irrigation techniques in four years. This means that 287 337 ha will be adopted annually. Alongside, as a way to control water use, the GOS has decided to promote the installation of measuring devices in all existing wells, and is requiring that all wells must be licensed by July 2001. The Agricultural Cooperative Bank is providing loans to the farmers to purchase modern irrigation equipment at subsidized interest rates, with higher subsidies for cooperatives. The development of new irrigation in the public sector has been increasing from 219 273 ha in 1993 ha to 396 518 in 2000 at a rate of 25 000 ha/year (MAAR, 2001b). Most of the new systems are of line canals from the headwork to the farm gate. Unfortunately the use of pressurized networks is still rather infrequent.

13.4 Macro-level analysis: current and projected balance of water resources

As water resources vary greatly across basins in Syria, it can be expected that water policies will have distinct effects on the different basins. Therefore we have analyzed in this study four different policy scenarios to assess the effect of water development and water conservation policies at country level and at basins’ level. These policy scenarios have been simulated along the years 2000-2015 horizon to evaluate the effects of several policy alternatives on the short-, medium- and long-term availability of water resources in Syria. Figure 13.3 represents schematically the process of simulation. Annual water balances were made in Excel.





Sustainable use of groundwater aquifers

· Well drilling is banned in the cretassic layer.

· Only public Ministries are allowed to drill wells for domestic water use.

· Forbidding cultivation of summer crops in the steppe areas to preserve non-renewable groundwater reserves.

· Obligation to license all unlicensed wells by July 1, 2001.

· Well drilling licensing is banned.

· Well deepening licenses are subject to the conditions of the irrigation department in the governorates.

· Pumping system installation is not permitted unless renewable water is available.

· Installation of flow meters in wells.

· Grant irrigation license to farmers investing in the installation of flow meters.

Cost recovery in public irrigation schemes

· O&M costs: Irrigation fee of SP3 500/ha for spring irrigation and SP600/ha for winter irrigation.

· Capital costs: establish a land reclamation fee from SP2 000 - 7 000/ha.

Irrigation rehabilitation and modernization

· Committee of Ministries should submit a national study for adoption of pressurized pipe irrigation systems.

· Rehabilitation of public irrigation schemes within a specific schedule.

· Supply to farmers with the required equipment and inputs.

· Agricultural Credit Bank will finance modern irrigation networks and pumping sets.

· Rehabilitation of the Al Manajeer irrigation projects in the Tigris and Al Khabour basins.

· Already implemented projects should be rehabilitated to adapt to modern irrigation techniques.

Adoption of modern irrigation technologies at farm level

· Committee of Ministries should submit studies for adopting modern irrigation techniques for strategic crops according to basins’ capacity.

· Allocate annual budgets and provide necessary loans. Perform quality control of equipment.

· Conversion from traditional irrigation methods to modern irrigation techniques in four years.

· Start conversion in public sector systems.

· Financing of adoption of modern irrigation by the Agriculture Cooperative Bank.

· Give priority for financing the projects located in the water-deficit basins.

· Licenses will be granted to unlicensed wells provided that modern irrigation (sprinklers, drip) is installed.


Coordinate Agricultural Plan with irrigation water availability

· Establishment of crop rotations and cropping patterns of strategic crops according to the renewable water resources, dams and reservoirs allocated for irrigation.

Development of new irrigation areas

· Allowing farmers in Raqqa Governorate to plant 1 400 ha with summer crops and 2 800 ha with winter crops.

· All irrigation and land reclamation projects should consider the adoption of modern irrigation techniques.


Development of new irrigation areas

· To ensure settlement of population in specific areas, it is permitted to cultivate pastoral shrubs and fodder barley not exceeding use of 1 500 million m3/year for all uses.

· Summer crops are forbidden to preserve non-renewable ground water reserves.

· Promoting investment by wells in the steppe trying to preserve water and settlement of population

Figure 13.3 Methodological scheme for the water balance analysis at national and basins’ levels

The analysis at basin’s level was performed to permit the assessment of the diverse impacts that those policies may produce on critical high-water-deficit basins with respect to water-surplus basins. This distinction is crucial for water policy analysis and policy recommendations. Figures 13.4-7 show the results of the policy scenarios at aggregate level and for the most critical basin.

Scenario 1: Present policy: Combination of irrigation modernization (4 years) and irrigation expansion (15 years)

This scenario represents the official Government policy (Presidency of the Ministers Council, 2001) consisting in the modernization of the irrigation techniques and the development of an area compatible with the requirements created by the increasing population. The area to be modernized is 319 017 ha/year (for a period of 4 years), that to be developed is 27 800 ha/year (15 years). This scenario does not take into consideration the fact that achieving the modernization objective will be very difficult in practice, but considers that it will be carried out as planned. The evolution of the deficit for the whole country evidences that during the four initial years, a large reduction of the deficit is achieved, but the deficit starts to increase from the fifth year onwards due to the development of the new areas. At the end of the period, the deficit reaches 2 469 Mm3 which is only 635 Mm3 smaller than the initial value. This shows clearly that, in spite of the substantial impact that could be obtained with the modernization program, the expansion of the irrigated area has a marked counterbalancing effect. The Al Khabour basin recovers and its deficit decreases to nearly 2 000 Mm3, but it declines later on to values close to the initial ones. This is an indication that in this basin the development of new irrigation should not be promoted if the equilibrium between demand and supply is to be restored. A similar conclusion applies to the Orontes basin.

Scenario 2: Modernization policy: Modernization of existing irrigation schemes with no expansion of irrigation

This scenario permits the visualization of the effect of a gradual modernization policy whereby the whole irrigated area (1 149 349 ha) will be modernized over a period of 15 years at the rate of 80 000 ha per year approximately. This scenario enables to reach a positive balance by the twelfth year, and by the fifteenth year the balance reaches a positive value of 857 Mm3. Unfortunately this scenario will not cover the needs of the growing population and some commodities will have to be imported. The reduction of the deficit in the critical basins (Al Khabour and Orontes) are close to 40 percent of the initial values, which is substantial for a 15-year period, but it also indicates that, even if the whole area is modernized, these basins will continue to have an important deficit. Therefore, stronger measures will be required to achieve a positive balance in these critical basins such as water consumption limitations per well, closing of wells, reduction of irrigated area, limiting the cropping pattern to crops with relative small water requirements or any combination of these measures.

Scenario 3. Long-term combined policy: Combination of irrigation modernization and irrigation expansion (15 years both processes)

This scenario assumes that modernization will be undertaken in the whole irrigated area but at the rate of 80 000 ha/year, in accordance to other international experiences. Expansion of irrigated area will take place at the same rate as in Scenario 1. At the national level, the deficit is reduced from -3 104 Mm3 to -2 753 Mm3, as the annual balance between the modernized areas and the newly irrigated areas is positive. This permits the reduction of the deficit but after year 15 the trend will reverse as all the existing irrigated area will have been modernized and only new areas will be added. The critical Al Khabour basin follows a similar pattern until year 11, when all the area to be modernized is covered and from that year on only new area is added producing a reversal of the trend.

Scenario 4. Differentiated policy: Modernization in critical basins and limited irrigation expansion in selected basins.

This scenario simulates different irrigation policies for the high-deficit critical basins and for the positive-balance basins. For the critical Al Khabour and Orontes basins a special five-year modernization plan will be developed assuming that all the irrigated area will be modernized in this period and that no new lands will be transformed into irrigation. For the remaining basins, the existing area will be modernized over a longer period of 15 years. New irrigation areas will be developed only in the positive-balance basins (Euphrates and Coastal, 120 000 ha and 45 000 ha respectively). The effect of this hypothesis is quite positive as it will permit the reduction of the national deficit from -3 104 to -451 Mm3 (Figure 13.7). A total of 165 000 ha of newly irrigated lands will be developed during the 15 year period, representing approximately one-third of the present Government plans. The effect is also quite remarkable for the Al Khabour basin, reducing the deficit from -3 105 to -1 845 Mm3 in a period of five years. This again shows that even if the whole area is modernized in a short period of time, the basin still has a high negative balance that will eventually lead to the depletion of the aquifers.

Results of the analysis show that when modernization policies are combined with the expansion of irrigated areas to reach the projected goal of 420 000 ha for the 15 year period, water balances tend to revert to the initial values (Scenario 1) or produce only a moderate reduction of the deficit (Scenario 3). The fact that some basins have quite large deficits while others have positive balances indicates the need for a differentiated policy to attain a national positive balance. Modernization will concentrate in the high-deficit basins, while development of new areas will be permitted only in the basins that have positive balances (Scenario 4), although the expansion of the irrigated area will reach only one-fourth of the projected objectives.

Figure 13.4 Scenario 1. Current policy. Modernization (4 years) and irrigation expansion (15 years)

Figure 13.5 Scenario 2. Modernization policy with no irrigation expansion

Figure 13.6 Scenario 3. Long term policy. Modernization and irrigation expansion (15 years)

Figure 13.7 Scenario 4. Differentiated policy. Modernization in all basins, no expansion in critical basins

13.5 Micro-level analysis: adoption of modern irrigation technologies

The assessment of the effects of the adoption of modern irrigation technologies requires a disaggregated farm level analysis that will complete the analysis at aggregated and basins’ levels that was presented in the previous section. For this purpose, different policy scenarios have been simulated that correspond to the adoption of different irrigation techniques under various types of water sources and farms that respond to the structural and agronomic characteristics of the irrigation agriculture in several regions in Syria. The analysis process is summarized in figure 13.8.

Thus, a typology of farms has been built to represent the Syrian irrigated agriculture in different regional environments. Representative farms were selected based upon the statistical data available, according to farm size, production potential, factor allocation, cropping pattern and type of water source. Different alternatives for adopting modern irrigation techniques were considered to permit the evaluation of the effects that the investments in new irrigation equipment will have on the financial results of different farm types.

As shown in figure 13.9, land sizes are not extremely dispersed in Syria. Small irrigated farms are numerous; they account for 30 percent of all farms and occupy 15 percent of the total irrigated surface in the country. The average irrigated farm in Syria is 3.6 ha and it represents the most balanced farm size class. In fact, farms of around 3 ha in size represent approximately one-fourth of all irrigated lands and all holdings in Syria.

a) Selection of representative farms:

Table 13.4 shows the aggregated strata that were selected to define the representative farms with an adequate level of representativity. These strata include roughly 80 percent of the irrigated area and 70 percent of the irrigated holdings.

Table 13.4 Selection of representative farms by area and number of holdings farm size

Farm size strata (ha)

Average farm size (ha)

% area

% holdings

Representative farms (ha)

>1 - <2





>4 - <8





>10 - <25








Source: Author's elaboration based on data of the Bureau of Statistics (1994 census).

Figure 13.8 Methodological scheme for farm level analysis

Figure 13.9 Percentage of area and number of holdings in the selected farm sizes

Source: Author's elaboration based on Bureau of Statistics (1999).

A field survey was conducted in a set of 48 irrigated farms, which permitted direct farm-based information that was used for the definition of the technical parameters, cropping pattern, farm size, water use and irrigation techniques in the farm models. Field survey data also provided the data base for obtaining the irrigation cost parameters in all the irrigation techniques alternatives in the farm models.

The farm typology is intended to represent the irrigation agriculture in Syria and features the characteristics of distinctive agricultural regions in the country. It consists of three selected representative farms according to the data available of size and number of irrigated holdings as defined in table 13.4.

These farms are: a large extensive farm of 14 ha, located in the North-East of the country (el Hasakeh region, Khabour basin); a medium size semi-intensive farm of 5 ha, located in the central north (Hama area, Orontes basin); and a small intensive farm of 1.5 ha, located in the northwest (Lattakieh area, coastal region). Together, they represent 77 percent of all irrigated holdings and 64 percent of the irrigated surface. Water sources in the different types of farms include surface water from rivers and underground water from wells of 200 m, 100 m and 50 m. depth. Irrigation costs were calculated for all the different alternatives using field data information. Irrigation techniques include traditional surface irrigation and modern sprinkler and drip irrigation. The combination of farm types, water sources and irrigation techniques has resulted in an ample number of farm models, which has permitted the comparison of the effects of the adoption of modern technologies for irrigation across farm structures and water sources. The general characteristics of the farms are the following:

Table 13.5 General characteristics of the representative farms

Farm type

Size (ha)

Cropping pattern


Large farm





Medium size farm


Sugar Beet



Small farm


Tomato Potato Oranges

50% 25% 25%


b) Comparative effects by farm types[86]

Results of the analysis are shown in figure 13.10, which depicts the profit attained by each farm type as modern irrigation techniques are adopted. Figure 13.11 shows, equivalently, the financial returns of water.

The effects of the adoption of modern irrigation on farm profit can be substantially different in the large-, medium- and small-farms evidencing that structural parameters and cropping patterns are determinant and hence regional characteristics. The results on financial returns of water (net margin/m3) show that for all farm types, the adoption of modern irrigation techniques increases substantially. However, differences between these two techniques are evidenced. In the case of sprinklers, increases range from 55 to 125 percent, as in the case of drip irrigation these figures double ranging from 116 to 218 percent. Across all farm types, the kind of water source (surface or underground water) determines also the profitability of adopting modern irrigation methods. The adoption of water-saving modern irrigation technologies results in larger increases in farm profits when water is extracted from wells as volumetric water costs are substantially reduced.

Adoption of modern irrigation techniques in the large farm

In the large farm irrigated by river water, farm profits increase moderately when modern irrigation techniques are adopted. From a net margin per ha of SP18 683/ha in surface irrigation, to SP23 395/ha in the case of sprinkler irrigation, and SP22 387/ha in drip irrigation. If water is extracted from wells of 100 m. depth, modern irrigation results in higher farm profit increases, passing from SP10 752/ha in surface irrigation to SP29 127/ha in sprinklers and SP28 212/ha in drip irrigation. This is due to the decrease in irrigation costs inbuilt in the modern water saving techniques as water costs depend on the volumes of extracted water. This tendency is reinforced as water becomes more expensive in deep wells of 200 m. depth. These results show that, in this type of extensive farm, sprinkler irrigation is more suitable than drip irrigation although sprinklers cannot be used along the whole growth period of cotton.

Figure 13.10 Financial effects of modern irrigation technologies by farm type

LF: large farm; MF: medium farm; SF: small farm.

Figure 13.11 Financial returns of water by type of farm, irrigation technique and water source

LF: large farm; MF: medium farm; SF: small farm.

Adoption of modern irrigation in the medium size farm

Medium size semi-intensive farms irrigated by river water increase farm profits by 33 percent when sprinkler irrigation is adopted (from SP41 911/ha to SP55 797/ha) and by 36 percent when drip irrigation is adopted (to SP56 949/ha). These results evidence that this modern technology is more suited for a more intensive cropping pattern (including potato). In medium-size farms irrigated by wells, the adoption of sprinkler or drip irrigation results in a double increase in farm profits (64 percent and 67 percent respectively) than in the case of river water (from SP35 627 to SP58 477/ha for sprinklers and SP59 628/ha for drip). The advantages of drip irrigation are reinforced as volumetric water savings are greater in this type of technology.

Adoption of modern irrigation in the small farm

In the case of the small intensive farm, which grows mainly fruits and vegetables, the comparative efficiency of adopting drip irrigation is further evidenced both for surface river water and for underground water. For surface water, farm profits increase by 38 percent if sprinkler irrigation is adopted and 67 percent if drip irrigation is selected (from SP153 087/ha to respectively SP210 985 and SP255 962/ha). If irrigation water is extracted from shallow 50 m wells farm profits increase by a double amount, 67 percent in the case of sprinkler irrigation and 111 percent in drip irrigation (from SP119 164/ha to respectively SP206 304 and SP251 478/ha).

13.6 Concluding remarks

a) On water resources policies

From the results of our analysis, we have evidenced that the present water balance in Syria is negative and a fast-rate growing population is putting additional pressure on the existing resources, which are not enough to satisfy existing demand. The development of new water resources seems very limited considering that Syria has developed a fair number of dams and reservoirs. As it has been often argued, further investments in new public-funded irrigation networks are extensively questioned worldwide due to increasing costs and environmental damage (Rosegrant, 1997; FAO, 1997). An alternative will be to invest in improving the efficiency of existing irrigation systems and to provide incentives to private investments (Rosegrant and Svendsen, 1993; Seckler, 1996; Badaragoda, 1998), which will conform to Syria’s new trends in agricultural policies. This seems especially crucial as, on the whole, restoring a positive water balance in the future appears as an important policy objective in Syria that will require some drastic measures in some of the existing basins where the deficit has reached alarming proportions. However, the nation-wide projected water policies in Syria have proven to be non-sustainable and a positive water balance will not be reached in the country, even less so in the critical high-deficit basins. Therefore, much of the present and future water policy will have to rely on demand management.

As some basins have positive balances while others have quite large deficits, a differentiated water basin policy would offer the best opportunity to reduce water imbalances among basins and reach a moderate overall positive balance. This policy will consist in coupling a modernization policy with a moderate and selective expansion of irrigation. That is, an intensive plan of modernization directed to the most critical basins with a lower rate of implementation in those basins where the deficit is smaller. New irrigation areas should be developed exclusively on the basins with positive water balances, and will meet about one-fourth of the projected policy targets. This implies that Syria will have to rely on the imports of some produce in accordance with the recent trend towards more market oriented agricultural policies and a more flexible concept of food security [responding to the recent joining of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a trade agreement with the European Union (EU)]. A possible agreement with Turkey regarding the flow available at the border could provide the basis for additional expansions of the irrigated area in the Euphrates basin.

b) On the adoption of modern irrigation techniques

The policy directed to substitute traditional irrigation systems with modern water-saving techniques seems very appropriate in Syria, considering that farmers are operating under an area-based administered water pricing system and are not charged for the actual use of water. This system does not ensure an efficient use of water. In fact, farmers benefit from subsidies for irrigation water as well as for strategic products and inputs which characterize the basis of the Government’s agricultural production plan. Currently, irrigators use large volumes of water well above what will be considered the optimal crop irrigation requirements without any penalty.

On the other hand, the adoption of modern irrigation technologies poses some technological problems. First, these modern technologies are better suited for holdings irrigated by private wells due to the certainty of having a continuous water flow available when necessary. Second, adoption of modern irrigation in public surface irrigation systems will present technological problems as most of the irrigation networks work in a rotation system that makes water available to the farm on turns of variable duration. Such modality is not compatible with the use of sprinkler and drip irrigation systems that require a frequent water supply. Therefore, the existing irrigation networks will have to be adapted to this technical requisite or farmers will have to construct regulating ponds in their farm with an additional substantial cost and loss of cultivated land.

The analysis made at farm level shows that the adoption of modern irrigation is financially attractive in most cases in Syria. However, the adoption of modern water-saving irrigation techniques will not necessarily imply that water savings will take place unless equipment is properly used. But even if the equipment is used properly, farmers may wish to cultivate a larger proportion of their lands or plant more water consuming crops if they do not find incentives to do otherwise. Therefore, whether or not water is actually saved by increasing on-farm irrigation efficiency needs careful evaluation. In fact, as technical efficiency increases, on-farm water consumption is expected to decrease as a mean to attain overall water conservation strategies. However, in Syria and elsewhere, it cannot be generally affirmed that irrigation modernization polices will induce, unambiguously, an increase in water savings; actual outcomes of these policies are frequently misleading (Huffaker and Whittlesey, 1995; Garrido et al, 1997; Seckler, 1996). Therefore, additional measures that complement the modernization programs will be needed to ensure that water savings will take place to the extent needed.

One of the possible complementary measures used worldwide is the establishment of a cost recovery scheme that will ensure the recovery of variable irrigation costs by charging them according to the volumes of water delivered and measured. This measure has proven to be effective in many countries to reduce water consumption. However, it has the potential risk of being misinterpreted as a water pricing mechanism in the context of the strong social and political traditions in Syria that have historically opposed any such measures. Thus, it may not be easily accepted and its implementation will be socially difficult. Secondly, the effectiveness of such measure will be essentially limited to public irrigation systems which are located mostly in areas of abundant water resources and represent only a modest proportion of the whole irrigated area.

Another possible complementary measure would be limiting the amount of water per hectare that can be used in every well considering the aquifer’s recharge rate and penalizing those that exceed it with a penalty fee. However, the implementation of this measure is not easy, and requires the installation of flow meters. In fact, a water policy based on quantitative limitations of water use has important monitoring and control requirements and therefore these policies have proven to be difficult to implement due to high enforcement costs (Varela-Ortega et al, 2002).

c) Towards a demand-managed water policy

Along these lines of argument, the most likely solutions for a better demand-management water policy in Syria will be the following:

Table 13.6 Example of a water/crop quota system for a water allocation of 4 000 m3/ha (first year)

Irrigation technique



Sugar beet



Traditional irrigation


0.25 ha


0.9 ha

0.90 ha

Sprinkler irrigation

1.20 ha

0.35 ha


1.20 ha

1.20 ha

Drip irrigation

1.20 ha

0.45 ha


1.30 ha

1.20 ha

Table 13.7 Example of a water/crop quota system for a water allocation of 2 700 m3/ha (fifth year)

Irrigation technique



Sugar beet

Sunflower seeds


Traditional irrigation


0.15 ha


0.6 ha

0.60 ha

Sprinkler irrigation

0.90 ha

0.25 ha


0.74 ha

0.84 ha

Drip irrigation

0.90 ha

0.40 ha


0.90 ha


None of these measures will be easily accepted by the farmers as they will perceive them as a reduction of their income. Enforcement of some of them may cause social unrest and result in limited implementation. Any such measure should be accompanied by some financial incentives to decrease the resistance for their adoption, as well as by setting up participatory mechanisms that will permit the farmers to get involved in the policy decisions before their implementation.

[85] Prices quoted were in the range of SP6/m3. Exchange rate: US$1 = SP50 (Syrian Pounds) (2001).
[86] Exchange rate: US$1 = SP50 (Syrian Pounds) (2001).

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