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Volume 29, Number 3May/June 1978

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Farming in the Fertile Crescent

Jordan , Lebanon , Syria , Iraq

Written by John Lawton
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

Although 90 percent of the Arab East is desert, the fertile 10 percent - the famous "Fertile Crescent" - harbors some astonishing exceptions. Among them are the Jordan Valley a unique, natural greenhouse below sea level; Lebanon, the Biblical "Land of Milk and Honey;" and the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, where, according to Theophrastus' History of Plants, returns from the well-farmed land were once a hundredfold.

Time and turmoil - such as the Mongols' 13th century destruction of ancient irrigation networks in the Euphrates Valley - have taken their toll in this rich swath of fertile land that arches from the lands along the eastern Mediterranean coast across northern Syria to the river valleys of Iraq. But, as a recent survey shows, farming in the Fertile Crescent is still vital to Middle Eastern agriculture and, by 1977 had begun to revive. This is particularly notable in troubled Jordan where, for 10 years, war, internal conflict and droughts have periodically upset the kingdom's already precarious grip on scarce farmland.

Prior to 1967 Jordanian farming was concentrated in the area called the West Bank. There, in fertile fields adjacent to the Israeli frontier, Jordan's farmers grew 30 percent of its cereals, 60 percent of its fruit and 65 percent of its vegetables. But then, in the 1967 war, Israeli forces captured and occupied the West Bank, leaving Jordan with a meager 800,000 acres of East Bank land suitable for agriculture. More problems arose in subsequent years when further fighting disrupted farming on the East Bank too, and damaged the vital Ghor irrigation canal. Jordanian farmers have also been hit by drought in three of the past four years.

Little wonder, therefore, that agriculture has been a declining sector of the Jordanian economy; its contribution to the gross domestic product fell from 22 percent in the 1960's to 10 percent in 1975. As a result, Jordan now imports more than half the food it consumes. It is wholly dependent on foreign purchases of sugar, rice and dates, relies heavily on imports of wheat, meat, dairy products and vegetable oils, and buys from abroad substantial quantities of potatoes, onions and garlic.

Conditions, however, are now improving - as the changing fortunes of Jack G. Khayyat, Jordan's leading poultry breeder, suggest. "In 1967 I had one of the biggest blows you can imagine" recalled the 43-year-old Jaffa-born Palestinian in one published interview. "I lost 90 percent of my customers in one week's time. I had only two choices: either tell my creditors I was bankrupt or start all over again."

Khayyat chose the latter and, despite losses of more than $600,000, was back on his feet again in less than a year's time. Then came, in the 1970's, civil conflict, which nearly bankrupted him for the second time. Yet Khayyat, in 1977 was recovering. "Since then, fortunately, we have had stability," he said, "and business is beginning to boom."

Behind the revival is a basic change in the economic attitudes of the Jordanian government. A monarchy which has tried to steer development along the free enterprise road, Jordan's government is, nevertheless, increasingly involved in agriculture. In the past five years government aid to farmers has doubled, with state credits totaling nearly $1 million in 1976, most of it for poultry and irrigation projects.

In 1976 the government also launched an ambitious Five Year Development Plan, aimed at increasing the kingdom's growth rate by seven percent a year - for a total increase of 40 percent by 1980 - with nearly 15 percent of the plan's $2.4 billion in investments earmarked for agriculture.

In the agricultural sector Jordan is giving top priority to increasing its water supply the shortage of which has sharply limited agricultural production. Because 80 percent of the East Bank's 34,300 square miles is desert or semi-desert - and because rainfall is scarce and irregular even in fertile areas - Jordan's farmers depend almost entirely on irrigation; although accounting for only seven percent of the total land under cultivation, irrigated land produces 60 percent of all the food grown in Jordan. The plan, consequently, concentrates on extending high-yield irrigated acreage, with nearly $216 million allocated for irrigation systems, dams, reservoirs and canals in the Jordan Valley the Dead Sea basin and the northern uplands; when completed, those projects will double the acreage presently under permanent irrigation for a total of 8,500 acres.

Meanwhile, Jordan has already completed a $36 million dam and a 17-billion-cubic-foot reservoir on the Zerka River. The government has also initiated construction of various water diversion projects on the Wadi Arab, the Wadi Hisban and the Wadi Jarum and is planning a $75 million dam on the Yarmuk River. To channel the extra water on to farms, planners are also providing an expanded network of pumping stations, carrier canals and pressure pipes, including a $52 million, 11-mile extension of the Ghor canal.

In an even bolder move, Jordan is also installing sprinklers along the entire 65-mile length of the Jordan Valley, a natural "hothouse" lying 600 to 1200 feet below sea level between Lake Tiberias and the Dead Sea; the first of the sprinklers was turned on in December, 1977.

Presently watered by canals, pipes and ditches, the Jordan Valley already produces more than half of the food grown in Jordan, but planners hope that by using sprinklers and other modern farming methods they can increase this fourfold. Parts of the valley are fertile enough to support two harvests a year, and its long, hot, humid summers and mild winters are perfect for growing tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, broad beans and melons in all seasons.

Because nearly a decade of conflict wrecked many of the valley's key agricultural installations - and forced large numbers of farmers to abandon their land - Jordan's government has been making an extraordinary effort to rebuild and rehabilitate the valley. In 1973, for example, it set up the Jordan Valley Commission to coordinate all development activities in the valley but with special emphasis on agriculture. One of the commission's first moves was to organize the farmers of the valley under the Jordan Valley Farmers Association, whose objectives are to increase production and help the farmers by raising the $225 per capita income of the farm families - half the national average - to an above-average level. The association is also planning to build new farming communities, to re-equip existing communities with roads, schools and clinics, to provide electricity and drinking water and to organize farmers into cooperatives that can share equipment and market the crops.

"At present" says Mirweid Tell, brother of a former premier and himself a farmer, "both farmers and consumers are at the mercy of the middleman." As this reduces the farmers' already low income and ups the housewives' food bills, the government is providing farmers with four regional fruit and vegetable packing centers at which produce will be collected from individual farms and readied for direct sale by their association to wholesale markets both inside and outside Jordan.

Other activities being carried out on a joint basis include pest control and harvesting, with $15 million allocated for the purchase of jointly owned farming equipment. To encourage expansion the government is also waiving import duties on fertilizers, pesticides and seed, and taxes on land and farm income.

Governments, however, can only do so much. In the final analysis, progress in farming still depends on the farmer - and in Jordan the farmers are going flat-out. Although supposedly reluctant to change tried and true methods of the past, the Jordanian farmer has, for example, enthusiastically adopted a radically new approach to farming - the use of plastic greenhouses and tunnels - which is rapidly changing the appearance of the Jordan Valley and simultaneously producing high-earning, out of season vegetables. "The farmers are really running after this one" says a government official. The reason, he says, is that investment is minimal, the return is quick and the profits high. As a result, giant, cigar-shaped plastic blisters are spreading like a rash across the Jordan Valley floor.

Not everyone, however, approves of this development. "What we need," says Tell, "is not expensive cucumbers in January, but enough moderately-priced food all the year round," - a sentiment with which the Ministry of Agriculture agrees. Rather than leaving the farmer free to grow whatever makes the most money the ministry prefers that farmers change crop patterns to make more efficient use of the land and better feed the nation. Indeed, that approach receives a high priority at the Ministry of Agriculture. Ministry officials, for example, limit production of citrus and bananas, which requires lots of water, and discourage farmers from growing wheat in high-risk, marginal rainfall areas. Instead they press for fodder, for improved livestock production and for fruit trees and for efforts to arrest soil erosion. And although that approach obviously reduces wheat acreage, it doesn't necessarily reduce the wheat crop. By intense cultivation of higher-yield seed, the Ministry hopes to double its output of wheat. The government, moreover, is attempting to make more economic use of manpower by turning Jordan's nomadic Bedouins into settled farmers; eight settlements are successfully operating in the desert south of Amman.

There is still, of course, the basic and insoluble problem of rainfall. Because of drought, officials estimate the actual agricultural growth rate during the first two years of the current Five Year Plan was four percent instead of the anticipated seven. But Jordan's officials are by no means pessimistic. "After all," said one, "output is going up, not down."

Lebanon, another Fertile Crescent country is also trying to recover from the impact of conflict: the 1975-76 civil war.

Once known as the "Land of Milk and Honey" and an oasis of peace and prosperity Lebanon had, over the centuries, developed its coastal plain, its terraced foothills and its magnificent Bekaa Valley into one of the more productive and most modern agricultural centers in the Fertile Crescent. It was, moreover, the home of the college of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, and the college's experimental farm in the Bekaa. From the college, students trained in modern farming theory and technology have been carrying the knowledge of modern agriculture throughout the Arab world for many years, and many of its graduates today hold key posts in agricultural ministries in most of the Arab countries.

During the civil war, however, and during the sporadic clashes that have occurred since, agricultural output dropped sharply. Losses in agriculture already exceed $120 million, much of it in livestock, poultry citrus groves, apple orchards and tobacco, and in 1977 the country had to import olives and olive oil for the first time in modern memory.

During the war too, Lebanon, which for years had been pouring money info a huge reforestation project called "The Green Plan," lost thousands of trees in the new forests when its people ran short of fuel.

In an interview early this year Amin Abdel-Malek, director of agriculture in the Bekaa Valley, estimated that agriculture would take two to three years to recover if there is peace. In late 1977 said Abdel-Malek "olive and tobacco production in the southern border areas was nil."

In the rolling hills of north Lebanon and the central Bekaa Valley however, the picture was not as bleak. Vegetable production was almost back to normal, poultry farming has recovered to 75 percent of former levels, and eggs were once more being exported.

Some of the recovery was due to help from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and to the government of Lebanon, which set up a special $17 million fund for agricultural loans and was subsidizing the import of cattle from the Netherlands to help farmers restock their depleted herds. "But until now," says Abdel-Malek, "much of the comeback is due to the personal efforts of the farmers."

Dr. Nasri Kawar, dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, agrees. "Personal initiative is typical of the Lebanese," he said, adding that the Lebanese farmer is "very capable, conscientious and willing to accept and invest in new ideas.

"They also have an excellent incentive," he said, because, with shortages, the prices of fresh produce have almost tripled. "Farmers are making good money with these prices," Dr. Kawar said.

Dr. Kawar is convinced that the Lebanese farmers will eventually recover from the effects of war. "The Phoenicians are known as sailors but in fact the first Phoenician settlers were farmers," he said, "and in the past 20 years the Lebanese farmer has made great advances in agriculture, particularly in mechanization."

In that period, he said, there has been a tremendous improvement in yields of sugar beets and grains. Of Lebanon's 966,000 acres of farm land, 106,000 are planted with wheat, 19,768 with barley and 5,600 with corn. In addition, olive groves cover 69,200 acres, vineyards 40,700, apples 34,500, citrus 27,000 and tobacco 16,300.

AUB still plays a leading role in agricultural experimentation through its Bekaa Valley Farm, but the farm, Dr. Kawar said, suffered $30 million worth of damage, mainly through looting. Fortunately however, its dairy herd and its heavy equipment were left unharmed.

Further east in the Fertile Crescent, the outlook for agriculture is more obscure. Despite impressive efforts now under way Iraq and Syria, where mankind first developed both agriculture and irrigation, must look further into the future before they can expect to realize the full potential of their agricultural heritage.

The key to agriculture in Iraq and Syria - the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent - is the great Euphrates River. Nearly 2,000 miles long, with an average annual flow of 1.024 billion cubic feet, the Euphrates rises in Turkey, crosses northeast Syria and, joining the Tigris River, flows south into the Gulf. Enroute it irrigates the alluvial plain between the lower waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, site of the ancient fluvial civilizations of Mesopotamia - a word meaning "between the rivers." In ancient times the development of agriculture was swift and by the time Babylon reached its peak, crops were rich and abundant. As Theophrastus observed, "Wheat fields are regularly mown twice, and then fed off with beasts to keep down the luxuriance."

In the 13th century however, Mesopotamia, then part of the Islamic empire, was devastated by the Mongols - so thoroughly that its precious fields and irrigation systems were permanently crippled. And in more recent times, frequent political upheavals and constant disputes among the three riparian states - over division of Euphrates water - has slowed efforts toward restoration of Mesopotamia's ancient fertility. As a result, writes British historian William de Burgh, "it now requires an effort of imagination to realize that Babylonia was once one of the chief granaries of the world."

Nevertheless, Iraq and Syria, the two Arab nations straddling the Euphrates, are today embarked on unprecedented development programs aimed at restoring their agricultural riches. Iraq, for example, under its 1976-1980 National Agricultural Development Plan, intends to invest $10.5 billion, a 72-percent increase over the amount allocated to agriculture in the previous Five Year Plan. Part of this sum is to go to further development of state farms and mechanization of Iraqi agriculture, currently suffering from a manpower shortage because of the drift of farmers into the cities. Further large sums are to be spent on irrigation - primarily near the Tigris, which is less saline and offers more development potential than the Euphrates because of the latter's damming by the Syrians and Turks.

Syria too is investing money in agriculture - and has for some time. By the early 1970's, for example, government programs worth $100 million had reclaimed some 85,000 acres from an area called the Ghab, a huge swamp where, periodically the Orontes River overflowed its banks in destructive floods. More recently - in its 1976-80 development plan - the government has earmarked $949 million for agricultural investment, 66.5 percent more than during the previous five year program. More than half this amount is going to development of dairy farming with the aim of boosting milk production in 1980 by 86,860 metric tons. According to an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, Syria is establishing 27 600-cow state dairy farms and 250 100-cow cooperative dairy centers. Under Ministry of Industry sponsorship the country will also establish a vegetable oil mill, three canning plants and three dairy plants. Additional sums of money are earmarked for agricultural development in the budget of the Ministry of the Euphrates Basin.

As the existence of this special ministry suggests, Syria's most important agricultural activity is development of the Euphrates Basin.

At the heart of it is the recently completed Euphrates Dam, the largest economic project ever undertaken by Syria (see Aramco World , January-February, 1974). Located at Tabqa, north of the ancient city of Palmyra, the three-mile long, 180-foot-high dam is - after Egypt's Aswan Dam - the second biggest in the Middle East. Capable of storing 423 billion cubic feet of water, the Euphrates Dam is expected to more than double the present irrigated area in Syria and virtually wipe out the country's vulnerability to erratic weather conditions.

Another major agricultural project in Syria is construction of a national grain silo network with a total storage capacity of 810,000 metric tons. When completed, the $90-million project is expected to save some $18 million annually in wheat and barley losses stemming from storage of those grains in the open air.

Yet another development which should improve the performance of Syrian agriculture is the implementation - by a new team of technocrats at the Ministry of Agriculture - of a more realistic farming policy. Essentially this policy will modify the enforced land reform of the 1960's with a system of land tenure under which 80 percent of cultivated land will remain in private hands. The experience of the past decade has taught agriculture officials in several countries of the Arab East, including Syria and Iraq that it is difficult to anticipate the results of basic changes in land policy and that reforms, even when urgently needed, must be preceded by careful planning.

With the aid of its increased oil revenues, Iraq is beginning to reverse the centuries of decline and aims at reaching food 'self-sufficiency by 1980. And Syria has set its sights even higher. Officials, in 1978, were aiming at agricultural exports worth $335 million by the end of this decade. Even today cotton is Syria's second largest export; in 1975 it accounted for 13 percent of all exports.

Iraq, meanwhile, is the world's first date producer, with an average total production of 350,000 tons a year. Many different varieties, notably the delicious Zahdi and Sayer, are grown in the Euphrates and Tigris Valleys, mainly in the governates of Basrah and Babylon.

And although the bountiful days of Babylon are long gone, there are those, other than the Syrian and Iraqi planners, who believe the Euphrates Valley still capable of producing plenty. "Syria," says an American agronomist based in Damascus, "has great agricultural potential." And the Euphrates Basin as a whole, adds Dr. Darling, "was a granary of the world in Roman times. Why not again?"

It is not impossible. The Fertile Crescent is an accurate name, and despite recurring difficulties the ancient area can still play a vital role in efforts to improve and expand the agriculture that was once its mainstay.

This article appeared on pages 4-20 of the May/June 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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