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Abolish Syria’s Ministry of Irrigation
On October 3, 2010 the President of Syria appointed a new Minister of Irrigation. I would like to take this opportunity to advocate that Syria’s Ministry of Irrigation should be abolished and its functions transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture. As long as irrigation politics is accorded a ministerial voice, investment in irrigation schemes will continue to waste Syria’s modest scarce resources.

Spending on irrigation over the past five decades has been in the billions but inefficient. Land reclamation cost was high, which I estimate to be in the region of $25,700 per hectare. At such cost, it would be practically impossible to make a reasonable rate of return.

The Tabqa Dam has failed to achieve its targets. The plan was to increase by 2000 the irrigated surface in the Euphrates Basin by 640,000 hectares. By 2000, only 124,000 hectares, or 19 percent of the target had been achieved in this salt-affected and drainage-poor Basin---gypsum in the soil caused the irrigation networks to collapse. In the Euphrates Basin 43 percent of the land was identified by the World Bank as having drainage problems or potential to develop problems in the future.

The Tabqa Dam wastes a huge volume of water to evaporation, estimated at 1.6 billion m3 annually. To put this figure in perspective, it is theoretically adequate to meet the drinking and household water needs of Syria's 22 million inhabitants. Put differently, 1.6 billion m3 of water is equivalent to almost 25% of Syria’s share of the waters from Euphrates River.
There are other unimpressive results from Syria’s obsession with irrigation projects. The migration from rural communities to urban centers did not slow down. The ratio of rural to total population has even declined since 1961, from 63 percent to 48 percent in 2000, where it probably stands today. Reliance on capricious rainfall was not reduced either. In 1989, wheat production was 1 million tons; in 1995, it jumped to 4.2 million tons; in 1999, it dropped to 2.7 million tons; in 2007, it increased to 4.5 million tons, and in 2008 it was around 2.5 million tons.

Food independence is impossible for a country like Syria to achieve. With 22-million population Syria requires about 22 billion m3 of water annually to grow its food needs. Syria can provide only 15 billion m3 from irrigation and rain combined. The difference is being imported in the form of foodstuffs quietly without fanfare. The gap will get bigger as Syria's population grows. Coupled with Syria's narrow GDP diversification and dearth in foreign currency sources from exports, food imports will grow increasingly difficult to afford.

Over-extraction of groundwater has deteriorated Syria's environment seriously. Irrigation extractions beyond the volume of renewable water have led to negative balances in five out the country's seven basins, thus reducing the quantity and degrading the quality of the remaining water reserves. Eventually, with continued water over-extraction, irrigated lands will be abandoned, investments written off, and food production halted. Whenever this happens, the negative impact on rural communities and societal order could be shattering.

The World Bank concluded that Syria's government "will need to recognize that achieving food security with respect to wheat and other cereals in the short-term as well as the encouragement of water-intensive cotton appear to be undermining Syria's security over the long-term by depleting available groundwater resources." Insufficient water resources and a rapidly growing population create insurmountable challenges for sustained food self-sufficiency with cotton growing. There simply is not enough water for both.
You can bring water and money and make the desert bloom, until either the water or the money runs out.

Under Syria’s arid and semi-arid conditions an economist would argue that it would be beneficial to import foodstuffs instead of investing in financially and environmentally non-viable local irrigation schemes. An economist would also argue that agriculture in Syria should be left to rain-fed lands with investments limited to improving crop yield, decided on a purely economic rate of return basis and not political convenience and special interest group pressure. Three quarters of Syria’s almost five million hectares in cropped area is rain-fed.

Syria would be better off beginning to focus its efforts on investment in export industries in order to generate sufficient foreign currencies to buy food in the future instead of continuing to invest in white elephant irrigation schemes.
For these reasons, Syria’s Ministry of Irrigation should be abolished.
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