Sowing like there’s no tomorrow

Northeast Syria’s agricultural recovery

When it comes to environmental stress, Syria’s northeast may be the country’s most acutely vulnerable region—and the one with the highest stakes. It is central to Syria’s food and water security. It is also, arguably, the place where most can be done.

Areas northeast of the Euphrates enjoy a steady stream of foreign assistance, and the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration is less predatory than the Syrian regime. Sustained Western funds create a chance to experiment with forward-looking approaches. Indeed, there is little reason why northeast Syria shouldn’t serve as a laboratory for aid actors seeking to help weakly governed regions adapt to a climate that is increasingly hostile. But progress so far has hinged on propping up an unsustainable system, whose side-effects will hurt the region in years to come.

Thriving and drying

Since 2017, Western aid has fueled piecemeal recovery in areas of northeast Syria formerly controlled by ISIS. Many were severely damaged by US-led bombing campaigns. Keen to stabilize the region and forestall a jihadi resurgence, Washington and its allies pumped in aid dollars to rebuild infrastructure, restore basic services, and revitalize key sectors. Water and agriculture are no exception: Western-funded contractors and NGOs got to work fixing irrigation infrastructure. They drilled new wells, sometimes equipped with solar panels and drip irrigation systems. And they helped farmers restart by providing essential equipment, agricultural inputs, and cash.

As a result, residents in some areas—notably in the countryside around Raqqa—suggest that agriculture has not only stabilized, but flourished: “NGOs saved our lands and our animals,” said a farmer in his village outside the town of Tabqa. “We’re able to live, work, and feed our families because of the organizations supporting us.” Elsewhere in Raqqa governorate, residents spoke proudly of how their communities have ramped up production of crops, like potatoes and olive oil, for which they were not previously known. This reflects the post-2017 arrival not just of aid dollars, but of farmers who fled frontlines in Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama. They brought with them both competence and capital.

But while some areas are enjoying an agricultural revival, others are struggling to survive amid punishing drought. The contrast is particularly extreme in Hassakeh governorate, where both urban and rural areas suffer dry taps and parched earth. “There’s been no rain for two years,” said an aging Kurdish farmer. His village in Hassakeh is better off than many, equipped with tractors that many communities could not afford. But that’s little comfort when there’s not enough water to sow crops: “No rain means no harvest. And our animals are dying. People who had 50 heads of livestock now have 10. If this goes on, we’ll have to stop living from the land and become laborers in town.”

Hassakeh’s woes reflect a range of factors, some of which are man-made. Turkey and its Syrian proxies have used their control of the Allouk pumping station to disrupt water supplies to what the UN estimates are up to one million people. But climate and geography play a role, too: Unlike Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, Hassakeh’s fields lie far from the Euphrates, which enables irrigated agriculture. And the Khabur river, once a key resource for Hassakeh’s farmers, has been worn down by decades of over-exploitation made worse by hotter, drier weather. Today, some 85 percent of the province’s agriculture is solely rainfed, according to an official from the General Union of Farmers.

Looking to the skies is a gamble that gets riskier as climate change makes weather less predictable. “Rainfed farming is like poker,” said a farmer from a Hassakeh village near the border with Turkey. “Every year you bet everything you have. You go into debt to keep playing, hoping the next year will be a good one.” Importantly, Hassakeh’s farmers were on a losing streak even before 2011: Between 2006 and 2010, drought wrought such havoc on the province’s agriculture as to spark waves of migration to areas as far south as Deraa and Damascus.

If rainfed farmers are among the region’s most vulnerable, they are also underserved by aid interventions. The latter have largely targeted irrigated agriculture, which is more likely to yield tangible success stories. “Our preferred beneficiaries are irrigated farmers,” said a manager with a large Western aid actor. “But the ones who need us the most are non-irrigated ones.” The same can be said of northeast Syria’s pastoralists: Hard-pressed to graze their flocks on dry, degraded rangelands, herders have seen little help. Another aid worker put it simply: “We’re not well-equipped for supporting people on the move.”

Pumping what’s left

This focus on irrigation also poses another problem, which may prove more insidious still: By helping farmers revert to water-intensive practices, the aid sector risks locking in a model that the local ecosystem can no longer afford. While hotter, drier weather is most immediately felt in areas far from rivers, it is also taking a toll on the all-important Euphrates. Between drought, over-exploitation, and upstream damming in Turkey, water levels now reach dangerous lows. A staff with a Western donor fretted about what this means for the aid response’s durability: “Aid actors have intervened to rehabilitate irrigation networks destroyed by the war. But it’s not sustainable, because the level of the Euphrates is dropping.”

Along with dipping into the Euphrates’ dwindling flow, a pumping-centric response also threatens the region’s groundwater. The latter was being rapidly depleted long before 2011, as weak public supply and lax oversight led to an explosion of unlicensed well drilling. This naturally continued post-2011, as drought and conflict dragged on. The aid response adds a new layer to this trend: Rushing to get water to vulnerable communities, some interventions have opened new boreholes of their own. These wells represent only a small fraction of the thousands dotting the region. But they also tend to be much deeper than the wells drilled by ordinary farmers for irrigation—tapping aquifers that will not be refilled anytime soon.

Most ominous of all is the fact that both aid actors and local authorities overwhelmingly lack data on the water tables they are drilling down into. There has been no comprehensive assessment of the region’s groundwater since before the war broke out, and the Autonomous Administration is entirely unequipped to pursue one. Aid actors could help plug the gap by monitoring conditions around wells they drill, but mostly lack the incentives—and dedicated budget lines—to do so. A Western staff with an international NGO explained her concern: “Most organizations don’t do feasibility studies. Such studies would take time, which isn’t easily accounted for in funding cycles. Simply put, they are drilling blind.”

The borehole boom is linked to another trend in the northeast response: solarization. By equipping wells with solar panels, aid interventions help farmers irrigate their land without the running costs—and pollution—of diesel-powered pumps. But that efficiency produces other costs, summed up by a food security expert in Hassakeh: “Solar power is free, once the capital investment is done. That means farmers can pump as much water as they want.” And the spread of solar energy doesn’t just raise the risk of overexploitation: It also threatens a toxic waste crisis, in a region that lacks any infrastructure to dispose of worn out panels—and which is already suffering from extreme pollution.

Too many cooks

These looming problems beg the question: If aid organizations recognize the risks of this approach, what prevents the sector from correcting course? One answer relates to fragmentation. The territory east of the Euphrates contains a disjointed array of institutions, including international NGOs, for-profit Western contractors, UN agencies, and the Autonomous Administration itself.

As a result, an organization working in water or agriculture may not know what other key players are doing—let alone have access to whatever information they might be gathering. “The only data we have is about our own projects,” said a manager with one aid outfit. “People don’t talk to each other. Even if there are formal coordination mechanisms in place, donors often restrict what kind of information their partners can share.” That disconnect is particularly worrying in a region where data is dangerously scarce to begin with.

Ideally, a central government would help overcome such coordination problems—not to mention fulfilling core functions like regulating water use and monitoring the quality of fertilizers and pesticides. For now, though, the Autonomous Administration has little or no capacity to tackle any of these: “Theoretically, we require that farmers limit pumping to 12 hours per day,” said an administration official responsible for agriculture. “But I know very well that they pump 24/7.” This is partly explained by the Autonomous Administration’s limited financial resources and dearth of qualified staff. But even where the authorities could plausibly rein in water use—for instance by metering agricultural wells—officials fret about antagonizing rural communities whose support they are anxious to maintain.

Western donors are tiptoeing, too: Most have stopped short of investing in the Autonomous Administration as a fully-fledged civilian government, out of deference to Ankara. Some donors not only avoid direct communication with the authorities, but also restrict what interactions their implementing partners can pursue. While such hedging makes sense geopolitically, it also impedes the type of planning, oversight, and coordination required to tackle northeast Syria’s deepening water crisis.

* * *

There is ample space to chart a more sustainable path, and trial approaches that can prove useful elsewhere in Syria and beyond. An urgent, self-evident starting point is harm reduction in the field of water management. That could include mandatory feasibility studies before drilling new wells; installing meters on those which are approved; and requiring that solarization efforts include basic planning around disposal.

In parallel, the sector should institute more systematic data sharing practices. There is no compelling reason why INGOs, for-profit contractors, and the local authorities would not be systematically pooling information about water tables and well-drilling. Ideally, aid actors would also support the Autonomous Administration in key oversight functions that cannot plausibly be tackled by anyone else: such as consolidating data on water resources, soil, and water quality, and coordinating the roll-out of drought-resistant crops.

Most importantly, the aid response can help northeast Syria commence an overdue shift to a more resilient agricultural model. We need not look far for inspiration: Historically, the area was known as a paradise of grasslands for grazing and rainfed agriculture. Its Arabic name, al-Jazira, says it all: a fertile “island” encircled by two great rivers.

The question, then, is how to replenish some of the bounty lost through decades of overexploitation. One approach would be to protect and restore selected ecosystems so that they can again serve rainfed farmers and pastoralists. Another would be to support those same groups with the tools they need to manage environmental and economic stress: providing, for example, drought- and salt-tolerant seeds along with insurance policies to buffer against failed harvests. Success will hinge on a mix of approaches and ample experimentation. This will benefit not just the Jazira itself, but other semi-arid regions whose fate tomorrow will depend on today’s experimentation.

19 September 2023

This article was penned collectively by Lyse Mauvais, Alex Simon, and Solin Muhammed Amin. Alex Simon is a co-founder of Synaps. Lyse Mauvais and Solin Muhammed Amin are journalists who collaborated with Synaps on fieldwork.

Illustration credit: artwork by pxhere / licensed by CC.