Massive investment needed if Damascus to avert water crisis

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.

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. Visit Running Dry

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