Water Infrastructure

Contemporary Water Infrastructure

Myriam Saadé-Sbeih, Ahmed Haj Asaad, Omar Shamali, Ronald Jaubert

Water infrastructures currently in service in the upper and middle reach of the Orontes basin are restored ancient infrastructures, such as the Qattinah dam or canals feeding the irrigated perimeter of Qusayr. The rehabilitation of these canals initiated in the 1920s, was followed by the extension of water networks in order to increase irrigated areas, particularly in the plain of Homs in the 1930s. In the late 1950s, the construction the Ar Rastan and Muharadah dams were the first stage of the Al Asharinah and Al Ghab irrigation development plans. Some facilities such as waterwheels (norias) have been gradually abandoned in favor of others, in particular motor pumps installed all along the course of the Orontes River. The construction and operation of the Ar Rastan dam reduced the river discharge thus putting out of use many waterwheels (Delpech et al 1997). The introduction and generalization of motor pumps substantially increased the extraction of groundwater which led to a profound transformation of the exploitation of water resources in the basin.


Ancient water facilities located between the northern Beqaa and Lake Qattinah, in the Upper Orontes, have been relatively little changed during the twentieth century. In the Lebanese part of the basin, oases – or ghoutas – exploit the many springs located in the area, namely, Younine, Labwe, Fakiyé, Ras Baalbeck and Ain Sakne at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon; Hermel, Qasr and Ain Tannour at the foot of Mount Lebanon (Weulersse 1940). The largest irrigation network which is fed by the Laboue springs was slightly modified in the 1960’s. The main change took place during the civil war with the redefinition of water distribution rules. During the 1970s, and especially since the end of the civil war, canal irrigation systems were overwhelmed by the proliferation of boreholes and the subsequent extension of irrigation from groundwater, particularly in the “Projects area” north of Qaa along the Syrian border (Audi 2013).

Downstream, across the border with Syria, several perimeters are irrigated from canals fed from the river. Five water intakes are located in the three main river waterfalls, 3 km upstream of the Lebanese-Syrian border, in Lebanese territory. These canals irrigate a total of 6,800 ha in Syria and 100 to 200 ha in Lebanon. They are also used in Lebanon for domestic water supply and for the disposal of wastewater from nearby villages. Canals along the river side that allowed small scale irrigation on the banks were abandoned in favor of fish farming and tourism (restaurants, hotels...).


The initial studies conducted during the French Mandate aimed at defining the hydro agricultural potential of the middle reach of the basin. The studies identified two main areas for irrigation developments, the plain of Homs and the plains of Al Asharinah and Al Ghab. The development of the latter two areas, respectively from the 1930s to the 1950s and the 1950s to the 1970s, led to the construction, of dams on the Orontes River and its tributaries (Table 1). In the late 1950s, the young Syrian Republic built the dams of Rastan and Muhardah, in 1958-1960 and 1959-1961 respectively, and raised to 500 million m3 of the total storage capacity, fed the 12 600 km2 catchment area upstream of Muhardah. The reservoirs provided only seasonal flow control of the Orontes River. From the late 1980s, seven new dams of smaller capacity were built. In addition, 24 dams of local importance were built upstream of Lake Qattinah, and in the governorates of Homs, Idleb and Aleppo in the district of Afrin. Since the 1980s, the whole area has been marked by an increase in the drilling of boreholes and intensive groundwater exploitation, not without consequence on the use of public waterworks.

Table 1: Main dams on the Orontes

NameYear of constructionCapacity (in millions of m3)Irrigated area (ha)
Afamia A199627.55470
Afamia B199738Undocumented
Afamia C199723Undocumented
Abu Barra19878Undocumented


Source: Shamali and Droubi, 2013


A large irrigated area extends along the Orontes River between the cities of Homs and Hama. The irrigation schemes are fed by the reservoir of the Qattinah dam, possibly one of the oldest dam still in operation . Before the modern redevelopment of the Homs plain, three canals were fed from the lake, one of them used to supply water to the city of Homs for domestic usages and for irrigating 1,000 hectares of gardens.

Gibert (1949) estimated that a total of 2,000 ha were irrigated in the Homs plain in the 1940s. The development of these irrigated gardens, initiated during the French Mandate in 1936, involved the raising of the Qattinah dam (1938-1940) to increase the storage capacity of the reservoir. It also involved building a 68 km canal between the cities of Homs and Hama; and connecting this canal to a network comprised of secondary, tertiary and quaternary canals (Gibert 1949). The irrigable area was estimated at 60,000 ha, only a part of which has been brought under irrigation. The canal irrigation scheme, irrigated about 20,200 ha in the late 2000s. The Homs-Ar Rastan section of the irrigation network, built between 1936 and 1942, irrigated 13,000 ha and the Ar Rastan-Hama network, built between 1944 and 1950, supplied 72,00 ha. The irrigated area decreased by 15% to 20% on the past 15 years.


Over the three decades following the independence, during the agrarian reforms period, major hydraulic works were launched in the Al Asharinah and Al Ghab plains, where large irrigated state perimeters were established. Both areas are located northwest of the city of Hama, in the Middle reach of the basin. The Al Asharinah plain spreads over 15 km from east to west. The Al Ghab plain made up of lacustrine sediments, stretches over 10 km wide and 50 km long. Both these regions were originally swamps, fed by the annual flooding of the Orontes and by perennial springs in the foothills. Fishing used to be the main economic activity (Thoumin 1936).

In 1950, the Syrian government initiated the Middle Orontes project to recover 35,000 hectares of land and irrigate between 65, 000 and 70, 000 ha. The Al Ghab Office was created in 1951 to implement the project. Despite government instability during 1958 to 1963, the project remained a priority of the first Five-Year Plan (1960-1965) and benefited from public investments until the late 1970s although supplanted by the Euphrates development project as the flagship program of Syria’s irrigation policy.

In the wake of several assessments, including the one conducted by the Dutch company NEDECO, the project was implemented between 1960 and 1968. The work consisted, at first to blow up the basaltic lock located in Karkur north of the Al Ghab plain; drain the swamps; and broaden and deepen the bed of the Orontes between Karkur and Kfeir. Two dams were built at Ar Rastan and Muhardah to regulate the flow of the river and supply irrigation water (Ar Rastan dam). All irrigation and drainage systems were operational in 1968. Nearly 950 km of main and secondary canals were built. The unhealthy and difficult-to-access marshy plain became, , an intensive agriculture pilot region in a span of two or three decades (Métral 1979). Currently, the irrigated areas of Al Ghab and Al Asharinah cover an area of 45,800 ha and 26,000 ha respectively.

The operation of these schemes has met with a number of difficulties. The development of the Al Ghab irrigation scheme especially, faced strong physical constraints related to the climate, water and soils. Diagnoses made between 1972 and 1978 on irrigation and drainage revealed drainage and maintenance problems and irrigation regulation deficiencies. Farmers’ coping strategies such as pumping from drainage collectors cause further damage to the system. Following these observations, the Al Ghab and Al Asharinah perimeters were renovated in 1986: drainage and irrigation networks were improved and the storage of surplus water from the winter period was increased. This phase included the rehabilitation of the Karkur dam in order to reduce its exploitation. This work was completed by the construction of the Abu Barra and Salhab dams on Orontes tributaries for flood-control and water storage, and by the creation of the Afamia A, B, C; Kastoun and Zayzun reservoirs, to store the excess water pumped during the winter.

From the mid-1990s, both irrigation schemes experienced other difficulties related to the deterioration of the situation of the Orontes in general, and in the Al Ghab and Al Asharneh areas in particular (Shamali and Droubi 2013). Low rainfall during the 1993-2001 and 2005-2008 seasons and intensive extraction of groundwater, contributed to the depletion of aquifers and reduction in the flow of springs. Rough estimates of the water balance sheet indicate that, if the 594 million m3 required for irrigation is to be balanced, the amount of water provided from the Upper Orontes (Rastan and Muhardah dams) should be increased by about 200 million m3. Because of reduced water resources in the Upper Orontes and low of water storage in the Ar Rastan reservoir, in 1998-1999 and 1999-2000, Al Ghab and Al Asharinah irrigated areas had virtually no supply from the irrigation network. These areas were then entirely dependent on springs and groundwater. Conversely, during the 2002-2003 season, high rainfall and releases from the Ar Rastan reservoir caused flooding in the Al Ghab perimeter.

Structural problems such as the fragmentation of holdings, the average size of which is of 400 m2 superscript, and inefficient water distribution policies have contributed to the water shortage. Despite this, irrigated areas continued to expand thanks to the exploitation of groundwater resources which are also used in dry years to supplement the supply of surface water from canal networks.


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