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Syrian jihadi group HTS imposes irrigation fees on farmers amidst water crisis

The water resources directorate of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-affiliated Salvation Government has imposed fees on farmers wishing to save their crops and irrigate their agricultural lands from water canals, as part of a project to rehabilitate water stations in al-Roj Plain in Idlib.
An aerial view shows Syrian farmers picking cherries in a field in the town of Juzif in the Jebel al-Zawiyah Mountains, Idlib province, Syria, May 30, 2022.

Amid a worsening water crisis in northwest Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has taken a series of measures to weather the effects of this crisis and help citizens cope with its repercussions. 

Throughout the years of war, Syrian government forces have repeatedly targeted vital infrastructure and facilities, including drinking and irrigation water pumping stations, which has prevented farmers from irrigating their agricultural lands.

Al-Roj Plain in the western countryside of Idlib was not spared the damage. The water pumps at the Balaa Dam in the countryside of Jisr al-Shughur in southwest Idlib province stopped working in 2013 due to repeated bombings, before rehabilitation works were recently launched to improve agriculture in the area.

The HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government in Idlib recently started pumping water from Ain al-Zarqa spring to Balaa Dam through a number of pumps, as part of a project that aims to help farmers and enable them to plant water-intensive crops.

On July 24, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation of the Salvation Government inaugurated the project to pump water to al-Roj Plain, in the presence of HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani, head of the Salvation Government, and a number of other prominent figures.

In a statement published July 29, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation announced fees that farmers would have to pay for the irrigation of their lands from the waterways supplied from Ain al-Zarqa water station.

The directorate had days earlier, on July 21, conducted experimental operations by pumping water to the waterway in al-Roj Plain for a few hours in a bid to encourage farmers to plant.

Speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, a source from the directorate of water resources at the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation said, “The water resources directorate has rehabilitated three out of the total seven pumps at Ain al-Zarqa station, and can now supply about 3,500 hectares [8,649 acres] in al-Roj Plain with water, out of a total area of about 10,600 hectares [26,193 acres] in the plain, which means that the project is able to meet the area’s needs. If the remaining four pumps are rehabilitated, all seven would be capable of irrigating about 7,000 hectares [17,297 acres] of land in al-Roj Plain.”

He added, “The directorate carried out a pumping [performance] test for 18 hours, six hours for each pump through the Ain al-Zarqa station, with an operational cost of about $4,680. This is the second pumping attempt since part of the Ain al-Zarqa station was rehabilitated last year. The water was pumped for the first time in 2021, after about a nine-year halt. We informed the farmers wishing to benefit from the project that the operational cost ranges between $7 and $9 per dunam [0.25 acres].”

Al-Roj Plain is known for its diverse agricultural crops due to the soil fertility. It is considered the food basket of the region, and the farmers there rely on water springs and the Orontes River, as well as the underground wells they had dug following the Syrian revolution and the shutdown of dams and water projects due to repeated shelling.

Farmers in al-Roj Plain have long suffered from many difficulties that have hindered their work, causing many to abandon farming and search for other job opportunities. 

Muhamed Issa, a farmer in al-Roj Plain, told Al-Monitor, “Most of the farmers in al-Roj Plain have relied on solar energy in [irrigating] their summer crops this season, in light of the halt in the flow of water to serviced canals surrounding the agricultural lands in the plain, the high cost of water supply from groundwater wells and the high cost of diesel, which is estimated at $70 a day.”

He noted, “Operating Ain al-Zarqa station is not a solution, because the irrigation cost based on the rates imposed by the water resources directorate is very high and does not commensurate with the profits generated from our agricultural crops. We cannot afford these rates unless the prices of summer crops are adjusted on the market and are raised in line with the costs [of production]. The price of crops decreased to the point of causing losses this year. Also, it is too late to pump water for the current summer crops, as the season is nearing its end. The crops were limited anyway, because not all farmers managed to irrigate more than one dunam or a little more.”

Although there are about 50 localities and villages in al-Roj Plain, and their residents depend primarily on agriculture as their main source of income, green spaces have recently declined in the area during the summer season because of the lack of water supplies to waterways.

Farmer Abdo Hassan told Al-Monitor, “Many farmers like me were willing to increase yield this year when we heard that water would be pumped into the canals of al-Roj Plain. I rented 50 dunams [12.4 acres] of land in the plain this year, but just before I started farming, I took a step back because it would have caused me major losses. It turned out that we have to pay a fee to receive the water. This is why I decided to limit cultivation to winter crops and refrain from cultivating summer crops.”

He added, “Some crops need to be irrigated more than 25 times, which make them very costly and cause losses to farms.”

Sutam Balaa, another farmer in al-Roj Plain, told Al-Monitor that he cultivated wheat and barley this season instead of vegetables due to the water scarcity in the area and the high cost of irrigation that the other crops need. 

Although he did not make any profits, at least he did not incur losses, he said.