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Encircled north Homs residents struggle to farm without irrigation

Residents of the encircled northern Homs countryside have turned to agriculture to realize a measure of self-sufficiency amidst a more than two year long siege. But the regime’s cutoff of water to the region has caused 80 percent of formerly arable land to turn barren, local sources tell the Syrian Voice.

Residents of areas encircled by the regime across Syria have resorted to local, alternative means of securing food, particularly agriculture, and have reinvested in large tracts of land as a quick solution to food insecurity.

But the regime targets agriculture across in rebel-held territory, either by burning harvests or cutting off water used for irrigation, as it has done in northern Homs province since 2013.

The water cutoff has made it harder for northern Homs residents to secure food and has turned formerly productive land barren. Water that irrigates the northern countryside originates in the Qatina lake, 12km southwest of Homs city, and runs through Homs city into the countryside.

The regime also turned the al-Rastan dam into a military base, preventing residents from benefitting from its water or planting near the dam.

“Eighty per cent of the Homs countryside has gradually become barren and afflicted by desertification,” Amjed al-Taqs, an agricultural engineer from Rastan, told the Syrian Voice.

“Agricultural production has dropped considerably, and the countryside has lost a lot of olive and citrus trees, especially in the northern countryside that is known for its fertile ground,” said al-Taqs.

“The decline in production was gradual. A single dunam used to yield 800kg of produce, and now yields 200kg…which illustrates how bad things have gotten, and the negative impact on civilians who depend on agriculture and the income from their harvests.”

Radhi is an elderly farmer who owns land east of Talbisa city in the northern Homs countryside. He told the Syrian Voice “I uprooted 112 trees over the past two years, including fig and peach trees, because I couldn’t irrigate them.”

“So I uprooted them and used them for firewood during the winter

, and I planted wheat and barley in their place, because they rely on rainwater.”

Some farmers continue to plant small amounts of vegetables along the banks of the al-Asi river that passes through the northern Homs countryside.

Encircled civilians in the northern Homs countryside have accustomed themselves to finding alternative solutions to a lack of irrigation. Hamid al-Abdullah, a young engineer, proposed using the area’s elevation to divert water from the al-Asi River in eastern Homs into channels that feed villages and cities in the northern countryside.

“I hope that through this program we can move quantities of water through the al-Asi basin, by means of pipes and pumps, to a compound where the water will be distributed to irrigation channels,” al-Abdullah told the Syrian Voice.

“This is a viable plan…but it requires an official organization with influence in the countryside that can fund and implement it, especially because we need to dig relatively deep in some areas, or move houses through which the channels might pass, safe from regime bombardment.”

The plan aims to improve the amount of agricultural land that benefits from the al-Asi river, as opposed to planting being limited only to the river’s two banks. It aims to provide al-Rastan, Talbisa, and other villages with irrigation.

Several humanitarian organizations in the Homs countryside do not pay special attention to developmental projects, but rather focus on providing immediate benefit to residents through aid baskets or other perishables. But developmental projects in encircled areas have the potential to give civilians a measure of food security.

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