Deborah Amos on the Water and Food Crisis

The massive Ataturk Dam (shown here in 1992), in southeast Turkey, harnesses water for one of the biggest irrigation and electric power schemes in the world. A drought and other factors have created an acute water shortage in the Middle East, and resentment in countries downstream from Turkey is growing.

The massive Ataturk Dam (shown here in 1992), in southeast Turkey, harnesses water for one of the biggest irrigation and electric power schemes in the world. A drought and other factors have created an acute water shortage in the Middle East, and resentment in countries downstream from Turkey is growing.

Deborah Amos has just returned from Turkey and Syria, where she covers the water problems in an excellent series on National Public Radio’s Morning Addition. Listen and read:

1. Tide Of Arab-Turk Tension Rises Amid Water Shortage

2. Mideast Water Crisis Brings Misery, Uncertainty – Syria

Adilla Finchaan, 50, checks her drought-stricken land in Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, in this photo taken in July 2009. Below-average rainfall and insufficient water in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers — something the Iraqis have blamed on upstream dams in Turkey and Syria — have left Iraq bone-dry for a second straight year.

Adilla Finchaan, 50, checks her drought-stricken land in Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, in this photo taken in July 2009. Below-average rainfall and insufficient water in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers — something the Iraqis have blamed on upstream dams in Turkey and Syria — have left Iraq bone-dry for a second straight year.

A Double Agent, the CIA and al Qaeda, To the Point with Waren Olney, NPR, Thurs, Jan. 7, 2010


When a double agent turned into a suicide bomber, seven US intelligence agents were killed. How much expertise did the CIA lose? What does the incident say about the abilities of al-Qaeda — and the quality of US intelligence? Also, the Obama Administration wants to crack down on smog.


  • Greg Miller: National Security Correspondent, Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Scheuer: former Chief, CIA’s Bin Laden Unit
  • Brian Fishman: former Director of Research, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center
  • Joshua Landis: Professor of History, University of Oklahoma

Also, don’t miss Deborah Amos’ story on Aleppo’s emergence as the food capital of the Middle East. Warning: You will be hungry for hours.

Syria Today has an entire issue devoted to the water crises in Syria and its many aspects.

Comments (16)

norman said:

Jad, OTW ,
Any project that Syria cooperate with Turkey on is good , The water which is saved is bound for the sea and wasted , so it is good to do , It looks to me that Syria has only one Dam of the Euphrates , while Turkey and Iraq have many , why doesn’t Syria have more Dams and would they help, the water shortage ,

January 10th, 2010, 3:43 am


ugarit said:

“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” – John Maynard Keynes

January 10th, 2010, 4:43 am


why-discuss said:

Lebanon-Turkey to waive visa requirement among others agreements with official Hariri’s visit to Turkey.
Syria may benefit as a crossing point for Lebanese tourists and merchandise trucks to/from Turkey.
Ironically, the killings in Gaza may have been the trigger for a complete overhaul of diplomatic relations in the region. Is a new era of economical and cultural exchange opening for the region where European and US intervention would be less accepted?

January 11th, 2010, 10:36 am


norman said:

Barton Biggs Leads Investment Mission To Syria, Says Government’s Presentation Was “Pretty Pathetic”

Courtney Comstock | Jan. 11, 2010, 8:18 AM | 194 | 2
PrintTags: Wall Street, International, Emerging Markets
Barton Biggs of Traxis Partners and Wafic Said, a wealthy Syrian-born industrialist who lives in Europe, led an investment team to Syria in late December, WSJ reports.

The mission came at the behest of the government, which is looking to open up its economy to outside investment.

Apparently a number of money managers from Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and some hedge funds tagged along, but the only names listed are Steven Galbraith, a partner at Maverick Capital and Bill Miller of Legg Mason.

Typical of traveling to an early emerging market, apparently none of their BlackBerrys worked there.

Biggs said some of their government officials’ presentations to the group were “pretty pathetic,” but the group was impressed by Syria’s President, Bashar Assad (pictured), and its deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Abdullah Dardari.

January 11th, 2010, 3:06 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Welcome Back Carter

Professor Josh,

I offer the following cartoon to explain my views and the possible reason behind the failures we’ve seen lately per the NPR article you linked to:

January 11th, 2010, 3:45 pm


Jad said:

Dear Norman,
How cool is it going to be if the municipality organized installing interesting turbines like this on the roof top of buildings in Homs or any windy city in Syria to get energy. an even use the photovoltaic panels on national level as source of energy! Have a green day! 🙂

Adobe Headquarters Installs 20 Vertical Axis Wind Turbines

January 12th, 2010, 5:02 pm


jad said:

Where is Dr. Elie to give us his feedback? It’s his specialty.

January 12th, 2010, 7:20 pm


Elie Elhadj said:

Dear Jad,

Ms. amos’ pieces give the impression that Syria’s water challenge is due to a lack of rain fall. Lack of rainfall is an age-old problem, but Syria’s government strategic emphasis on irrigation and its heavy investment in irrigated agriculture over the past few decades is the greater problem.

On January 2, 2009, SC published under the title “Water and Economics in Syria” a part of an article I had written on the subject:
Here is a repeat of certain segments:

The Syrian Government: A Bad Farmer

Spending by the Syrian government on irrigation and agricultural development has been substantial but inefficient. Beginning in 1960, the eight five-year plans that followed invested about $20 billion on the agricultural sector (at the official foreign exchange rates of that period). Three-quarters of the investment was made between 1988 and 2000.

The results have not been brilliant; 550,000 hectares, or 45 percent of the country’s total irrigated surface, were added during this period, of which the government contributed 138,000 hectares and the private sector developed the rest. Unfortunately, ninety percent of the 138,000 hectares (124,000 hectares) was in the salt-affected and drainage-poor Euphrates 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 government started in 1968 building the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River. Made in the Syrian national discourse as one of the government’s proudest achievements, the Tabqa Dam failed to achieve its targets. The plan was for the dam 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.

The Tabqa Dam wastes a huge volume of water to evaporation, estimated at 1.6 billion m3 annually. While this volume could theoretically satisfy the drinking and household water needs of Syria’s 19 million inhabitants, most cities have been suffering severe water shortages for years, including the capital Damascus, which suffers daily water shut-offs during the blazing summer months lasting over fifteen hours.

The loss of water to evaporation is all the more significant in light of Turkey’s 50 percent cut in the flow of the Euphrates River into Syria and Iraq, which resulted from the construction of the huge GAP project in eastern Turkey. Turkey reduced the flow to Syria and Iraq to 500 m3 per second in accordance with a protocol for the distribution of the river’s waters signed on July 17, 1987. Turkey started construction of the Keban Dam in 1966, two years before Tabqa’s start of construction.

The non-financial returns from the government’s emphasis on investment in agriculture were poor as well. Under Syria’s vulnerable economic circumstances and despite the government’s commitment to the welfare of the agricultural sector, the migration from rural communities to urban centers continued. The ratio of rural to total population has declined since 1961, from 63 percent to 48 percent in 2000. 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; and in 2007, it increased to 4.5 million tons. Estimates for 2008 are for a harvest of around 2.5 million tons.

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.

Food independence is impossible for a country like Syria to achieve. Syria’s population of about 19 million requires about 19 billion m3 of water annually to grow its food needs. Yet Syria can provide only 15 billion m3 from irrigation and rain combined. The gap will get bigger as Syria’s population grows.

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.” Of Syria’s 13 billion m3 in irrigation water use, almost a third (4 billion m3) is used in cotton irrigation. In spite of these difficulties, Syria’s plan is to increase the irrigated surface between 2000 and 2020 by 493,000 hectares in five of the country’s seven basins; 181,000 hectares of which in the Euphrates Basin.

Eventually, with continued water over-extraction, irrigated lands will be abandoned, investments written off, and food production halted. Coupled with Syria’s narrow GDP diversification and dearth in foreign currency sources from exports, food imports would become increasingly difficult to afford. Whenever this happens, the negative impact on rural communities and societal order could be shattering.

Food self-sufficiency in a country like Syria is more of a romantic dream than a reasoned strategy. Syria would be better off to start focusing on investment in export industries in order to generate sufficient foreign currencies to buy food in the future before the aquifers run dry instead of continuing to invest in white elephant irrigation schemes.

Money and water can make a desert bloom until either the money or the water runs out.


January 12th, 2010, 9:24 pm


jad said:

Dear Dr. Elie,
I totally agree with your assessment that mismanagement is to blame for the situation, yet the government groups responsible for this mismanagement are still in their positions and it seems that nobody is alarmed about the severity of the situation and that we are already inside the dangerous zone.
It is so sad that some people in the higher circle keep the mindset on ‘business as usual’ without bothering themselves of doing a real work to revisit the whole strategy and policies that lead Syria to this situation and not doing some immediate assessment of the damage done and at least to try to solve the real problem instead of giving people affected by the drought some meaningless packages of dry food and some cans. Is that the only genius solution they can come with?
It’s also sad that the government doesn’t hire expertise to do the job right they prefer to put bunch of idiots to run the show for them and cost all of us an expensive environmental disaster.
Someone should truly introduce the word ‘sustainability’ into our Syrian government vocabulary.

January 12th, 2010, 11:58 pm


norman said:

Hi Jad,

I am not very familiar with the green industries , but from what i know they are very expensive and for a growing economy like Syria , it is not possible on the short run ,

The private sector is welcomed to do that , the government is needed to provide the essential electricity that is needed for industries ,

Dr Elie ,

I remember that in the seventies where the Government was blamed for stressing industrial developments and ignoring the agriculture and farming ,

if Syria is losing much water through evaporation , why can’t they store the water in the Assad lake in covered reservoirs and water tanks , wouldn’t that save more water ,
from what i remember the reason for the Assad dam was not only to have more water it was also to protect the areas in the Euphrates basin from flooding that killed people every year ,

January 13th, 2010, 3:27 am


jad said:

Just check out China, they know very well that renewable energy is the future. Why doesn’t Syria do that instead of concentrating on services and tourism, why they insist on forgetting the important of infrastructure industry?
Look at the enormous Chinese investment in creating renewable energy technology and sell it to the world, from what I know is that their products have an essential fault, that is with the hazardous materials they use to built those products, Syria with its little money can use smart thinking NOW and start building the same products with recyclable and safe materials. Understanding that low priced energy is the treasure of the coming years is priceless and Syria should jump on this precious industry opportunity “yesterday”.
Do you know that many energy projects inside the states are done using Chinese technology; can you believe that the US is using Chinese technology now?
China is also investing big money in the wind-energy business by building and selling turbines, why don’t we at least try the ‘green’ market?
Nothing is expensive my friend, what we miss is ideas, visions and the will from all of our policy makers.

January 13th, 2010, 7:15 am


Elie Elhadj said:

Jad and Norman,

Now that Syria’s water challenge was described, a word on how the government’s hydraulic mission evolved would be helpful. Hopefully, future policy changes might emerge.

In the aftermath of the 1963 military coup, Syria’s new rulers needed to legitimate their seizure of power. The predominance of agriculture in Syria’s low per capita GDP shaped the economic agenda. In 1960, over 60% of Syria’s population lived in rural communities, agriculture accounted for about one third of GDP, a quarter of the labour force engaged in this sector, with another one half of the manufacturing workforce dependent on agriculture for employment. Syria’s narrowly diversified economy provided limited alternative work opportunities.

The situation today is not much different: Migration from rural communities to urban centers continue, reliance on capricious rainfall has not been not reduced, and over-extraction of groundwater has deteriorated Syria’s environment seriously. Further, financially, I estimate that land reclamation cost was a high $25,700 per hectare. At such cost, it would be impossible to make a reasonable rate of return on the investment. A 10 percent return translates to $2,570 per hectare, over and above the cost of production. It would be less expensive to import the produce. Also, exports would cause losses.

Syria’s irrigation strategy evolved from a combination of a poorly informed narrow decision-makers coalition, from an absence of scientific evaluation to allocate the scarce resources of the country efficiently, and from an absence of environmental voice to protect Syria’s water basins from depletion or its environment from degradation.

Non-economic and environmentally unsound strategies like irrigated agriculture to achieve food self-sufficiency in a semi arid country like Syria are packaged with slogans that evoke national fervour and patriotism. There has been no effective voice saying that Syria’s mega irrigation projects, especially on the Euphrates River, will have serious negative economic and environmental results, let alone wasting vast amounts of desperately needed funds to improve the long list of poor basic infrastructure facilities and diversify GDP sources. In the absence of a free press or expression, it is difficult to introduce into water policy a balancing economic or environmental perspective. Such a process made it possible to evolve Syria’s unsustainable water policies of the 1980s and 1990s, which persist to this day.


January 13th, 2010, 9:25 am


jad said:

Dr. Elie,
Thank you, we are on a total agreement!
I’m also hopeful that one day, smart, honest and hard working people get into the policy maker circle to come up with meaningful changes to the water and environmental policy. We truly really need that for a better future.

January 13th, 2010, 7:00 pm


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