(Al-Bouleil, Syria) ─ Authorities in the rebel-held town of Al-Bouleil in Deir al-Zor province have reinstated a scheme pumping water from the Euphrates to local farms, but local farmers say rising production costs mean they still face many challenges.
Bouleil is located on the banks of the Euphrates, about 25 kilometres away from the city of Deir al-Zor, its economy mainly dependant on wheat, barley and cotton farming.
Prior to the revolution, crops were irrigated by water pumped from the Euphrates, a service provided by two public organisations ─ the Public Institution for Agrarian Reform, based in al-Buomar about 10 km from Bouleil, and the local Farmers Association of al-Bouleil.
After opposition forces took control of the town, the Farmers Association stopped its work because it could no longer provide the necessary funding or fuel to maintain its water pumps.
For its part, the Public Institution for Agrarian Reform ─ which used electric pumps ─ also had to stop its work due to the frequent power cuts.
The local council in al-Bouleil has now reinstated the work of the Farmers Association. It currently charges 12 US dollars to irrigate 1,000 square metres, whereas before the revolution, the Farmers Association used to water the same surface for approximately 60 dollars. These fees contribute to the wages of the association’s employees.
Khalif al-Hashtar, head of agriculture in the local council, explained the importance of reviving the Farmers Association after “Bashar [al-Assad] and his regime fought against farmers’ livelihoods”.
“The Farmers Association is trying to save this year’s wheat season despite technical difficulties,” said Hashtar. “We repaired some of the diesel pumps, but they were damaged by manually refined diesel. There’s a lack of diesel produced by government refineries. We had to buy electric pumps but the frequent and long power cuts caused us to buy generators as well.”
According to Hashtar, one generator can power four pumps simultaneously.
However, irrigating their land is not the only issue farmers face.
Abu Khalif, a farmer in his sixties who grows wheat and cotton, believes that agriculture is currently a “necessary evil”.
“We raise livestock, and we need to cultivate the land to prepare it for grazing,” he said.
Abu Khalif acknowledged that the price he receives for his crops has risen. Traders who “are partnering with the regime to starve our people”, as he put it, are willing to pay over the odds for agricultural products that they smuggle into Turkey. But he also complains about the rise in the cost of production.
“As a result of the ongoing war, there’s a rise in seed and fertilizer prices, in addition to the high ploughing costs. We don’t make any profit that is worth the effort and time that we dedicate,” Abu Khalif continued.
He believes that the re-activation of the Farmers Association was a very important step that came at a critical time, because the water level in the wells had dropped.
Vegetables grow better when they are watered with river water rather than well water, Abu Khalif continued, but he criticised the association for not activating the pumps often enough.
“Plants have to be watered every three days,” he said.
Another farmer, 35-year-old Maher, has completely abandoned his former livelihood and now works in a makeshift oil refinery.
“In the past three years, agriculture has seen a major decline in our town due to the high costs of fertilizers, which are not always available,” Maher said. “The main reason why I left agriculture and started to work in petroleum refining was to be able to provide a living for my family.”
Maher’s wife, 30-year-old Aisha, agreed that leaving agriculture was the only way to improve the family’s living conditions.
“When my husband was working as a farmer, he was barely able to secure enough money to buy fertilizer, seeds and pay for ploughing. He used to borrow money from his relatives and promise them to return it once he sold the crops,” Aisha said. “All of this time, our debts kept growing… We often had to ask for money from people who would be reluctant to help. Once we harvested and sold the crops we would barely have enough to pay living expenses.”