Hassan Al-Hassan, a Syrian farmer in his 50s known to the locals as Abu Hasan, remembers how difficult it had been in the past few years in the village of al-Rabeha in the southern governorate of Homs. “The situation in these areas was extremely harsh. Due to lack of water, we could hardly produce anything,” said Abu Hasan.
The third largest governorate in Syria, Homs is also home to some of the most fertile lands in the country. Traditionally, agriculture had a major role in the Syrian economy, counting for about 20-25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and was a main source of employment for nearly half of the Syrian population. But the Syrian conflict, now in its seventh year, combined with lack of rain and adverse weather conditions since 2009, have had a devastating impact on the country’s economy and the agriculture sector.
The irrigated lands along the Homs-Hama canals were some of the main agricultural casualties in the past few years, in part because of damage and destruction to the irrigation canals and water distribution control mechanisms. This prevented another farmer – Abu Majed al-Attaf, who is in his late 30s – from cultivating any crops at all. “It was very hard. I used to plant different types of vegetables and had 35 beekeeping hives but they are all dead and my livestock was also affected by the lack of water,” says al-Attaf.
Recognizing the dire need and with the European Union’s support, FAO is implementing a resilience project to address the root causes of agriculture under performance. “Thus one of the key intervention lines of the project is focusing on sustainable natural resources and small-scale farmers’ access to water for production in order to strengthen local food production, as well as to provide local famers with alternative source of income,” said Adam Yao, FAO Representative a.i, in Syria.
The two-year resilience-building programme, which began in March 2016, will strengthen local institutions and their communities to improve drought early warning management capacities for better food and nutrition security, said Yao. “As part of those activities, the programme has already conducted rehabilitation work along the 26-km Homs-Hama irrigation canal, including the al-Rabeha public earthen irrigation canal, and repaired the main flow control gates to allow irrigation of about 21 000 ha of agriculture brought back to local food production,” said Wael Seid, FAO senior water expert.
Upon completion the water for production component of the programme is expected to benefit over 40 000 households – about 240 000 people – including 4 000 households in Abu Hasan’s community. “At this stage of the protracted crisis, FAO is supporting local famers’ capacities to produce more food for their own consumption and the Syrian people and, in this regard, access to water for production is a key factor for farmers to produce fresh vegetables, grain, fruits and other crops. Many Syrian farmers have been displaced during the past seven years. When they return, access to water for production will be key in keeping them on their land to resume their farming activities,” said Yao.
Farmers say they are happy too and thanks. “We welcomed the rehabilitation of this water supply dearly and wish to thank the European Union and FAO for this generous support! It is the best thing we could have dreamed of. This year’s production is four-times higher than the last three years,” Abu Hasan said joyfully.
Many farmers like Abu Hasan and al-Attaf have benefitted from the FAO irrigation and agriculture initiatives. Such projects have helped them remain on their land, feed their families and even produce vegetables and fruits to meet the needs of residents in al-Rabeha, the surrounding villages, as well as a significant portion of people living in Homs city. ”Thanks to the canal rehabilitation works, I can plant peppers, potatoes and nuts as well as fodder for my livestock,” adds al-Attaf. “Now I am able to lead a normal life.”