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In Syria’s parched farmlands, echoes of Egyptian woes
The Syrian government says there is no chance of unrest spreading to the country, but on the ground citizens are suffering all the same problems that pushed Egyptians to breaking point.
March 10, 2011 3:05 by Reuters
Hauran, which stretches from the south of Damascus across the border into Jordan, has been less hard hit. But Meqdad, who lives with his wife, mother and eight children in a two bedroom abode, can no longer count on agriculture to supplement his meagre income.
The 40 donums (40,000 sq metres) he used to plant with wheat did not yield enough last year to cover its cost because of lack of rain. He did not plant anything for the 2011 season, expecting another drought.
Other farmers have also been hit by poor rains and earlier subsidy cuts. The ministry of agriculture said yields in Hauran’s main agricultural province of al-Daraa fell by a quarter last year.
Youssef Saleh said he lost $4,000 last year on his 500 donums (500,000 sq metres), which he planted with wheat.
“The crop was so bad that I sold it as animal feed,” he said, adding that it was prohibitive to dig wells because water was 1,000 metres under the surface and the price of gas oil, which powers pumps, more than doubled after subsidies on the fuel were lessened three years ago.
Samir Aita, a Syrian economist, said the state needed to step up development projects, but it was focusing on promoting business monopolies and “rent seeking” activities such as real estate, as was the case also in Tunisia and Egypt.
“Everyone wanted to emulate the ‘Dubai model’ of free trade and real estate zones…forgetting that they have a population that needs jobs and for whom the growth should be directed. Look what has happened to them,” Aita wrote in a paper published on the Syria Comment website.
Wary of potential for unrest despite the iron-fisted grip of the security apparatus, the government last month lowered customs duties on staples and fruits and began distributing cash handouts to 420,000 families.
Customs on rice were lowered to 1 percent from 3 percent. Bananas now have a 20 percent tariff, instead of 40 percent. Poor Syrian families can qualify to receive $10 to $70 a month as handouts.
Abdallah Salman, who makes $150 a month working as a parking ticket officer for a private company in Bosra, qualified for $70. When he is not at work, Salman begs.
“I know people in my own clan who own nice houses who received assistance. Corruption has spread everywhere,” said Salman, who pays $80 a month in rent.