Sunday, June 17, 2007

Impact of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees on Syria

A recent report by the Brookings Institution paints a harrowing picture of life in Syria for Iraqi refugees and assesses their impact on the Syrian population and economy.

When will the Arabs admit that traditional "Arab hospitality" begins to wear off after 3 days? By giving shelter and support to destitute Iraqi families, the Syrian government has acted honourably. The government should now demand financial compensation and other material and logistical support from the "coalition of the willing*"; all those governments that supported the invasion of Iraq to curry favour with the Bush Administration. On reflection, perhaps not, it would be like asking a bunch of street prostitutes to donate a part of their meagre earnings to a good cause.

* Coalition of the willing: The governments of the UK, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Spain, Denmark, El Salvador, Slovakia, Latvia, Netherlands, Thailand, Australia, Hungary, Kazkhstan and Romania which acted against the wishes of their own people.

The following is an excerpt from the report:

"Syria is not a rich country, and the sudden arrival of such a large number of refugees can only have had considerable impact on the country – especially when coupled with the arrival of Lebanese refugees fleeing the Israeli onslaught of the summer of 2006.

Ordinary Syrians routinely say they believe there are between three and six million Iraqis in their country, which reflects the perceived impact that the Iraqi refugees have had on everyday life in Syria. In everyday conversations, Syrians complain bitterly of the rise in prices, rents and crime. The prices that have risen have been mainly groceries (but not staples like bread), transportation and rents. The base charge for taxis in Damascus has recently risen from 3 SL to 4 SL. Rents, as mentioned above, seem to have increased dramatically – though it is difficult to get a solid quantitative handle on the progression. What is certain is that the issue of rent prices is an emotional issue for Iraqis and Syrians alike. The former complain of what the latter charge, and the latter complain of what the former are willing to pay.

At the same time, the presence of so many Iraqis desperate for work undermines Syrians working in the informal and even the formal market. For instance, people report that an Iraqi laborer will work for a smaller daily wage than a Syrian laborer. But this overlooks the fact that Syria was struggling with many of these issues beforehand, and might well have had to face inflation, pressure in the housing market and downward pressure on wages – even without the presence of the Iraqi refugees. At the same time, the presence of the Iraqi refugees has clearly contributed cash to the Syrian economy, and the cross-border trade to Iraq, driven mostly by Iraqis, has opened new markets for Syrian goods. All this is difficult to quantify in the absence of strong data, but it is safe to say that the economic impact of the Iraqi refugees has probably not been all negative. While the overall impact on Syria’s economic infrastructure is hard to gauge, the Syrian government asserts that the refugee influx has drastically increased the demand for state subsidized goods and services, placing significant stress on national finances.

According to a paper presented to a recent international conference on Iraqi refugees by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iraqi refugees markedly increased Syria’s domestic consumption of subsidized goods in 2006. The demand for bread rose 35 percent, costing the state $34 million; the demand for subsidized energy spiked, including electricity (27 percent), diesel (17 percent) and cooking gas (11 percent); the demand for potable water rose 21 percent, which at 125 liters per capita cost the state almost $7 million. Although there have been questions raised as to the accuracy of these figures, they clearly represent the magnitude of the Syrian state’s perceived burden. However, while Iraqi refugees have certainly drawn on subsidized goods, the added pressure has not shown signs of destabilizing Syria’s budget. According to the International Monetary Fund, Syrian expenditures on subsidies as a percentage of GDP have remained steady over the last five years.

The Syrian government also claims that the Iraqi refugees are a drain public services. In terms of education, for instance, the Ministry estimates that each Iraqi child costs the budget 30,000 LS ($600) per year. That means that the estimated 30,000 enrolled Iraqi children (as noted above, a low rate of enrolment) cost Syria $18 million. One area that is deteriorating is clearly that of relations between Syrians and Iraqi refugees and mutual perceptions between them. Syrians see Iraqis as arrogant, rough, ill-mannered and hold them responsible for the (perceived) increase in crime. They resent them for ‘taking over’ local neighborhoods. And the predominantly Sunni Syrians fear the influx of Iraqi Shi‘a. Iraqis see Syrians as greedy and corrupt. What is distressing is that, according to conversations with both Syrians and Iraqis, feelings were not so hard two years or even one year ago. The explanation probably lies with the on-going influx of Iraqis, the fact that the newcomers are increasingly poor (and therefore visible), and that the refugees who have been in Syria for a while are beginning to run out of resources. But it is still striking to note that many Syrians continue to give credit to their government for living up to its pronouncements on Arab unity (qawmiyya) and solidarity, even though that notion has been badly battered over the last few decades. And many Iraqis still acknowledge that Syria is the country in the region where they are best treated."

13 reasons why there is no Palestine

An interesting article by Bradley Burston of Haaretz, published on 15 June, explains why the Palestinians still do not have their own independent state.

It is reproduced here in full because it provides a succinct and more balanced picture of the Arab-Israeli conflict than anything I have seen in recent years. I do not necessarily endorse the writer's views because they are not entirely neutral. However, the article deserves wider coverage especially in light of the recent tragic events in Gaza, which demand a pause and some self reflection.

Why there is no Palestine By Bradley Burston

Two ships of state are headed directly toward each other at an average rate of 75 deaths per month.

The first ship, which we will call I., has many captains and no rudder. It is slowly but inexorably sinking from the corrosive effects of corruption, callousness and exhaustion. The second ship, which we will call P., is sinking at a somewhat faster rate, its hull breaking in two, its crew in mutiny against itself. Vessel P. is unable to feed its passengers, unable to alter its fate.

For your matriculation, answer the following, showing your work: What is the probability that both ships will sink before they next have a chance to collide?

Extra credit: Arab leaders have been speaking of creating an independent Palestine for more than a century. Four of the last five Israeli prime ministers have endorsed the concept and spoken of fostering it. The world community recognizes that there should be such a state. So does U.S. President George W. Bush. A billion Muslims believe that there must be such a state.

Why is there no Palestine?

1. Because Israelis can't decide what they want.

Polls have shown that a clear majority of Israelis wants to see an end to the occupation. But history - and the craters of Katyushas and Qassams - indicate that a clear majority of Israelis, and an absolute majority of their leaders, are unwilling to take the potentially catastrophic risks of ending the occupation unilaterally.

Moreover, suspicious of the Palestinians' ultimate intentions and fearful of the social consequences of expelling West Bank settlers, the public shows little inclination to seek a diplomatic solution.

We no longer want to pay the price of occupation, but we have become convinced that the price of ending it is far higher.

2. Because Palestinians cannot decide what they want.

For decades, the Palestinians had no need to decide what they wanted. Israel shunned their representatives, dismissed their aspirations, settled their lands, and imprisoned and otherwise hunted down their leaders.

The occupation was more than simply the address for all complaints, the explanation for all disappointments, the diagnosis for all pain. It was also the excuse for indefinitely delaying debate over the character of a future independent Palestine.

Ironically, the hope of statehood was kept alive through the very darkest periods of occupation. More recently, however, as Gaza drowns in civil war and blood feud, Palestinians have begun to wonder if they will ever have a state at all.

To be able to move toward statehood, Palestinians must decide how they themselves stand on the bedrock issues of the conflict. Fundamentally, they must decide if they wish to make a final peace with Israel, or press for a Palestine to supplant it.

3. Because neither side is willing to abide by peace agreements.

Each side has banks of researchers assembling evidence that the other side consistently violates the explicit terms of signed peace accords. The evidence, on both sides, is conclusive.

4. Because we are, all of us, better at vengeance than we are at forgiveness.

For both sides, it is the first rule of politics: Peace is politically dangerous, if not lethal. War, or at least talk of war, is the safer default setting.

This is similar to, but not the same as:

5. Because we love our extremists too much.

Both sides have a profound sentimental attachment to the militants, extremists and hardliners in their midst. We see them as the keepers of the pure flame, the ideologically untarnished, remnants of a more straightforward era. We also suffer from them, as the minority whose actions intentionally thwart the possibility of peace for the majority.

On the Palestinian side they may be gunmen or suicide bombers or their dispatchers; on our own, hilltop youth or those suffering from Temple Mount delusions.

We tolerate them, we subsidize them, we admire them, we arm them, we forgive them their trespasses, we allow them to live outside our own laws - and, in return, they ruin our lives.

6. Because the policies of both sides play directly into the hands of extremists on the other.

Hamas is Hamas because of Israel. And no group in the Holy Land has done more to bolster the Israeli far right than Hamas.

7. Because the Muslim world wants its Palestinians to suffer.

The Muslim world grants the Palestinians fortunes in lip service, and little else of value. The Palestinians are much more valuable to them as valiant, pathetic symbols of victimhood. The Palestinians are to the Muslim world as the wretched refugees of Gaza once were to the Palestinian leadership. Their image can act as lightning rods for unrest, turning domestic political discord into anger against Israel.

8. Because the West now sees them as terrorists.

All terrorism, like all news, is local. The moment Muslim terrorists strike a Western city, the Twin Towers, the Underground, the Madrid depot, Palestinian resistance turns overnight to terrorism, in the local journalistic vernacular. Thanks largely to Al-Qaida, the West has changed its definition of Palestinian resistance, from defense of the innocent to targeting of the innocent.

9. Because Arafat lied to them.

While Yasser Arafat was signing agreements with Israel, he was letting his people know in hints and winks and exhortations that they would in the end have everything they wanted. Refugees would return to their homes in Israel proper. Jerusalem's Old City would return to Muslim sovereignty. The armed struggle would tip the balance.

There is also the lie inherent in the rule of corruption which Arafat fostered, sapping critical resources, undermining public confidence and crippling efforts at responsive governance.

10. Because they cannot stop themselves.

There is no one to put an end to civil war. There is no spiritual authority, there is no governmental authority, there is no military authority.

11. Because some of the best people in Palestine are leaving.

And because some of the people who cannot leave are unable to think about anything else.

12. Because each side takes it for granted that its side is clearly, morally, objectively in the right, and that the other side is nothing but wrong.

A fool's paradise turns out to be better than no paradise at all.

13. And because the Holy Land is the world capital of wishful thinking.

Deep down, both sides secretly believe that they will get what they wanted all along, whether it's Greater Israel or Greater Palestine, complete sovereignty over Jerusalem or the right of return.

After a century of struggle, the Palestinians deserve better. The Palestinians deserve a nation. But after a century of struggle, they now face their worst test since 1948.

Their ship of state needs a painful refitting, and a radical and perhaps terrifying change of course. As a people, the Palestinians are now facing their matriculation. If they can address their long list of problems head on, they can return to the path of independence. But skip the problems, or get them wrong, and Palestinian nationhood may be just one more dream dying in the dust in Gaza.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Syrian population – staring at disaster in the mirror

Most recent data + comment

Total population - 2004: 17.8 million (now 19.0 milion, excluding Iraqi refugees, numbering 1.5 million)

Residents of Damascus and Aleppo Governorates: 44.1% of population (7.8 milllion)

Growth rate 1981 – 1994: 3.3%

Growth rate 2001-2005: 2.46% (at this rate the population will double in 28 years)

Population under 15: 39.6% (7.1 million)

Population of working age (15-59): 54.6% (9.8 million)

Unemployment rate: 20% (unofficial estimate and ignoring the equally serious under-employment of well-qualified workers)

Palestinian refugees in Syria*: 413,000

Literacy rate – males: 91.0%

Literacy rate – females: 74.2%

Average age at first marriage – males: 29.4 years

Average age at first marriage – females: 25.6 years

Mothers under 19 years of age: account for 25% of all pregnancies in 2001

Mothers 20-24 years of age: account for 21% of all pregnancies in 2001

Fertility rate: 3.8 children per woman

First cousin marriages: almost one third of all marriages

Incidence of congenital or hereditary child disabilities: ¼ of first cousins’ marriages

Contraceptive prevalence – urban areas: 54% (2004)

Contraceptive prevalence – rural areas: 38% (2004)

Mortality rate for infants: 18 per 1000

Mortality rate for children under 5: 20.2 per 1000

* There are no legal protections for refugees in Syria as the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Thus, questions of refugees and their status fall into a legal vacuum in Syria. Refugees are not allowed to work legally.

Girls’ Education

While Syria has nearly achieved gender parity in primary education, with levels at or near 90 percent nationally, there are still many areas of the country where girls are much more likely to drop out of school than boys. A rapid assessment of enrolment and dropout rates conducted in 2002 in Al-Heri Village in Deir Ezzor illustrates this point. The assessment indicated that more than 50 percent of children 6- to 17-years-old were either not enrolled, illiterate, or out of school. The same study reveals that 31 percent of girls age 6 to 17 were not enrolled or illiterate, while for boys it was only 5.8 percent.

In many rural areas it is still a prevailing attitude that girls should be brought up to become wives and mothers only and thus is not important for them to be educated beyond basic literacy. This belief also prevails among some conservative communities in urban areas. Thus, socio-economic factors are those deterring girl children from attending school. Elder girls often take care of younger brothers and sisters, and are expected to assist their mothers with household work. If the family cannot afford to send all children to school, boys are often given preference. Early marriage in rural areas is another reason for girls to leave school; the rates of early marriage among girls in the governorates of Aleppo and Raqqa are 70 percent among the 15- to 19-year-old girls and 50-60 percent among 13- 18-year-old girls.

Source: UN Common Country Assessment 2005


At present 4.5 million employed Syrians feed themselves and 14 million other Syrians who are too young to work, housewives , old, incapacitated or cannot find jobs. The infomal economy and money transfers back home by Syrian expatriates help to keep many families above subsistance level.

The combination of high unemployment, widespread under-employment, rapid population growth and diminishing oil revenues means Syrians are speeding towards an economic and social disaster. The country is faced with four stark choices:

1) Increase investment on a massive scale (at least US$10 billion per year, or 25% of GDP) to create at least 5 million jobs over the next decade (especially for women), while improving productivity.

2) Export 5 million unemployed Syrians to the rest of the world in the next 10 years

3) Force every woman of child-bearing age to take contraceptives indefinitely

4) Start armed conflicts that selectively kill 5 million unemployed Syrians in the next 10 years.

Shocked? So you should be. Ask your newly "re-elected" parliament and president what they are doing to attract US$ 10 billion of investment capital per year. Prominent Syrian economists estimated foreign invetment at only US$300m in 2006 whereas vice-prime minister for economic affairs, Abdulla Dardari had told reporters a year earlier that Syria would pull in US$ 2 billion.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Water crisis in Damascus - worse than ever

From the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

SYRIA: Massive investment needed if Damascus to avert water crisis

DAMASCUS, 11 October 2006 (IRIN) - Billions of dollars of investment are required over the next decade if Damascus, Syria’s rapidly growing capital, is to avert a critical water crisis, according to a leading development agency.

Water levels in Damascus drop drastically in the summer months.
Photo: Hugh Mcleod/IRIN

The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the development agency of the Japanese Government, has taken a lead role in tackling Syria’s growing water shortages. Kazuhide Nagasawa, resident representative of JICA in Syria, told IRIN that over the past 20 years the level of ground water in the Barada basin, on which Damascus sits, retreated from 50 metres to 200 metres underground, leading to supply shortages as well as a struggle to tap water in dry summer months.

“In another 20 years, the water table could be down to 400 metres [below ground level] while the population of Damascus could have risen from its current figure of 4 to 5 million, to 10 million. At that point it will be difficult to survive on the limited water resources. The Syrian government will have to decide whether they want to transfer water to Damascus from the coast, or from the Euphrates [river].”

Mufak Khalouf, head of the Damascus Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (DELTA), said that the Syrian government was pressing ahead with a feasibility study for a project with a Swiss company to pipe water from the Euphrates River - which flows from Turkey through Syria to Iraq – to Damascus.

The project is reported to have a projected cost of around US $2 billion, and was previously believed to have been scrapped due to budgetary constraints. “The study is due to be finished before the end of the first quarter of next year,” said Khalouf. “In the meantime Damascus can extract water supplies from the ground water, and we are working on rationalising water use among residents.”

However, international specialists warn it will not be long before the ground water upon which much of Damascus and its surrounding countryside relies, dries up almost completely.

“The over extraction of ground water has left it in a very serious decline,” said Noriyuki Mori, a technical expert in water resource management at JICA. “If this continues, it will become so low that farmers and residents of Damascus will no longer be able to extract it.”

Supply and demand

Damascus city uses an average of 215 million cubic metres of water per year according to Khaled Shalak, Deputy General Director of DELTA. At present, the available water in the capital is 200 million cubic meters a year. An additional 45 million cubic metres is already needed, and that figure will have risen again by 2010, Khallouf said.

Because of water supply not meeting rising water demands in Damascus, water is currently being rationed to 13 hours a day.

Damascus, one of the longest continually inhabited cities in the world, was founded where it is because of its ready supply of water. However, the once fertile plain created by the Barada River, rising in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range and running west to east across the city, is rapidly drying up.

Even in the mainly urbanised Damascus basin, however, around 80 percent of available water is used in agriculture, with outdated irrigation methods wasting huge quantities of it. Across Syria as a whole, only 16 percent of farmers use modern irrigation systems, according to JICA’s Mori, and yet, the agricultural sector is set to grow by some 40 percent over the next 20 years.

JICA is working with Syria’s Ministry of Irrigation to encourage more farmers to install modern irrigation systems, such as sprinklers, which Mori says could lead to a 25 percent saving of water if used by farmers in the Barada basin.

In 2004, JICA completed a US $50m eight-year grant project to replace 100 km of water pipes across Damascus, resulting in a dramatic reduction in loss of water through pipe leakage - from some 60 percent loss to 20 percent.

The Japanese agency is currently implementing a $10m project to pump more ground water from the mountains near the Lebanon border to Damascus.

This summer, water shortages hit some towns around the Syrian capital. Sahenya, 16km south-west of Damascus, had 10 days of no water. This forced people such as Khalil Hussein - a public sector worker who earns less than $250 a month - to buy relatively expensive tanks of water to use for cooking and cleaning.

The town’s water supply was turned back off, only a few days after it was turned back on.

“We used to go for two days without any water, but now it is for 10 days,” said Hussein, a father of five. “I am paying for drinking water, for washing water and then I pay my water bill to the government. I just can’t afford to spend $60 each month on water so I am thinking of selling the house and moving to an area with a better supply.”

IRIN’s new series of reports - entitled ‘Running Dry: the humanitarian impact of the world water crisis’ - offers in-depth analysis and a wide range of stories and interviews on the critical water issues facing the world today.

Water problems in Syria

"The renewable surface and ground water resources of Syria are estimated at 10,000 million cubic meters annually.

The country requires approximately 400 million cubic meters annually in order to sustain itself. Agriculture consumes between 86-90 percent of the water resources of the country. This figure may decline slightly as a result of agricultural policy changes and improvements in irrigation techniques, but agriculture is expected to remain the major consumer of water resources due to the Government’s commitment to self-sufficiency in major food crops such as grains, which require irrigation. Based on current rates of depletion, it is estimated that Syria may soon experience water deficits in three of its major river basins. This problem will be exacerbated if the country experiences particularly dry or successively dry growing seasons. Syria’s National Environmental Action Plan cites depletion and contamination of surface and groundwater resources as the country’s first priority in terms of sustainable resource management.

The impact of such depletion is already being felt in many areas of the country.
Declining groundwater levels have resulted in land going out of agricultural production,wells being relocated and rural residents migrating to more distant locations. Freshwater springs, used for drinking water in many rural communities, have decreased output or have dried up in some cases. Depleted groundwater aquifers have led to increasing salinity levels in some areas. Declining river levels and water flow has resulted in poor water quality. These effects have resulted in higher water treatment costs, lost agricultural production, and increased health risks to individuals.

Click on image to enlarge

The National Action Plan sets out five high priority environmental problems, and proposes four major actions with accompanying measures for each priority in the areas of policy development, institutional development, investment programs and training and information. In the areas of “Sustainable Use of Water Resources,” these actions include:

• Matching development planning to availability of water resources;
• Stopping the over-exploitation of water resources, maintaining sustainable use levels
and stopping the intrusion of saline water into coastal aquifers;
• Providing rural areas with potable water;
• Reducing the contamination of water resources due to domestic and industrial wastewater discharges."

Source: UN Common Country Assessment 2005

An anonymous commentator on an earlier post provided a vivid description of the water problem and pollution in Damsacus, as follows:

"The water resource and cultivated land is abundant in north and north east of the country. However, the poverty in that region is overwhelming because of neglect. Also, the coast area could generate a lot of resources which started showing in small and mid size project, I have heard about from locals.

The shortage of water resources and the retreat of cultivated land I alluded to are in Damascus city and Damascus suburb. This area inhibited with the ¼ of the population in addition to being the place for central government.

Syria in general is suffering today from deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, water pollution from raw sewage and petroleum refining wastes and the inadequate potable water supply. Especially in Damascus and the surrounding, which is over populated, the inadequate use resources made it reach the breaking point. Visiting observer can see how the whole area which makes the portable water basin in Blodan, Zabadani and Barada stretch are polluted by sewer lines, over population and un controlled wells pumping.

The centric governing in Syria still concentrate on Damascus region where most of its housing projects planned without any indication of easing the grip for some self governing for other areas to ease the pressure on this region. Currently the municipality in this region can not provide adequate portable water for its current populace. The rapidly growing population estimated at 2.5% and the arrival of Iraqi refugees, and the accelerated migration of poor from rural area to large urban centers have created a serious problem of slums. The fragmented authoritarian regime expedites slums formation. These slums are similar to caves and worse where even water is not provided. The statistic shows a 36% violation in Damascus for building code. An estimated 1.2 million units of substandard houses is constructed in Damascus. Not to mention the air pollution, which is obvious if you visited the city, the water shortage, and water pollution from sewer all created environmental problems which has exacerbated by a serious nepotism and mismanagement."

A Syrian blogger, Aleppous, quoted the following article on desertification in Syria:

(AKI) - Rising heat, dwindling rainfall and soil erosion threaten to reduce some 65 percent of Syria's territory into a desert wasteland, a Damascus-expert has said, contradicting official reports that desertification threatens 18 percent of the country. "The temperature increase, together with erosion are killing plant-life and causing fertile topsoil to disappear, as is the squandering of water resources and inadequate irrigation practices," the expert, speaking on condition of anonimity, told Adnkronos International (AKI).

According to the expert, rising salt levels are threatening the fertility of 50 percent of land lying along the banks of the River Euphrates with some 6,000 hectares of land a year becoming not suitable for agricultural production due to illegal irrigation.

The authorities are failing to modernise the irrigation systems that would help curb the desertification process, she said.

Encroaching desert due to drought is one of the main challenges facing Syria, admits Muhammad al-Oudat, a senior environmental researcher with Syria's national nuclear energy entity.

"Deforestation, the illegal construction of roads in rural and suburban areas as well as uncontrolled grazing as well rising temperatures," are the main causes for desertification, al-Oudat told AKI.

The government is working with the United Nations Development Programme to develop projects aimed at safeguarding the environment and to offset the desertification threat, he said.

Health care in Syria

The good news:
"There has been dramatic improvement in health indicators for Syria in the last three decades: life expectancy at birth has increased from 56 years in 1970 to 71.7 years in 200231; infant mortality has dropped from 123 per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 18.1 in 2001; under-five mortality rate has dropped significantly to 20 per 1,000 live births; maternal mortality has fallen from 482 per 100,000 live births in 1970 to 65.4 in 2002.

Access to health services has increased since the 1980s, especially in favor of rural populations achieving better equity. Access to health services rose from 76 percent for the period 1985-1988 to almost 90 percent in 2000. The urban-rural gap is also narrowing from 32 percent for the period 1985-1988 to only 12 percent for the period 1990-1995.

National statistics indicate that the mean number of people served by a single medical doctor was 683 in the year 2002 – ranging from 321 in Damascus, the capital, to 1,849 in the eastern province of al-Hassakeh. Government expenditure on the health sector has increased as a proportion of total government expenditure from 1.1 percent in 1980 to 3.8 percent in 2002 (National Budget Report). No well established system of health insurance exists in the country. A draft proposal for a National System of Health Insurance is under study."

The bad news:
"Despite the improved capacity of the health system, there are still a number of challenges; among these are: inadequate coordination between different providers of health services,uneven distribution of human resources, high turnover of skilled staff, an inadequate number of qualified nurses, an uncontrolled and unregulated private sector, stagnant budget allocations for health despite increasing demand and cost, and uneven distribution of quality of health and medical services among geographical regions."

Source: UN common Country Assessment 2005

Rural poverty in Syria

In Syria, around 9 million people live in rural areas. Agriculture is the main activity in these areas, employing 55% of the labour force. The sector accounted for more than a quarter of GDP and total employment in 2004.

According to the UN "Syria possesses impressive agricultural potential and a reasonably good level of food security". However, productivity in the sector is low and unemployment among adult males is 20%. The illiteracy rate is still a shocking 28% of rural adults. Many factors are to blame for the stagnation of agriculture, chief among them is the small and fragmented nature of land holdings.

The following is an excerpt from an interesting report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) on rural poverty is Syria:

Why are they poor?
The main causes of rural poverty in Syria include:

• the small and fragmented nature of landholdings
• water shortages and drying up of groundwater wells, coupled with persistent droughts
• lack of access to credit and markets
• lack of appropriate technology

Other causes of poverty include:

• illiteracy, which affects about 28 percent of rural adults
• the large number of landless people, whose capabilities are limited
• the high rate of rural population growth
• the large proportion of young people and the growing number of new entrants to the job market
• limited employment opportunities and the lack of development of on-farm and off-farm enterprises to create new jobs, because of the lack of a suitable microfinance system responding to the needs of rural poor people.

The government is now trying to address these problems with the help of various UN agencies. Its strategy to reduce poverty in Syria is articulated in the Tenth Five-Year Plan 2006-2010.

According to an IFAD paper, the plan’s principal strategic objectives are to:
  • raise the educational level of poor households and combat illiteracy
  • improve social services in the poorest regions
  • develop social safety nets
  • develop financial policies that target poor people and improve income distribution
  • ensure poor people’s access to financial resources through microfinance
  • empower local communities and civil society to take a greater role in the development process

The government’s plan emphasizes the need to create employment opportunities, particularly for poor people and for unemployed young people. It encourages private initiative, promotes development of small and medium size enterprises, develops training and capacity building and rehabilitation, and creates technological (and other) incubators.

Since the IFAD report was produced, the unemployment situation in rural areas has deteriorated further as many agricultural workers have had to return to Syria from Lebanon. Also, the arrival of more than one million Iraqi refugees has exerted enormous pressure on food prices as demand has outstripped supply while supply has remained constrained by low productivity and other factors.

Will the government now press on with these reform plans or is it too busy celebrating hollow election victories this year? Will it publish progress reports for all to see? Who will hold it accountable if it does not deliver on these plans? Surely not the independent and ever vigilant People's Assembly!