The land use in the Orontes River basin and its evolution are related to the availability of land, water resources and climate characteristics. It is also related to the economic, political and institutional contexts of the region. All these elements induce a large diversity in land use patterns and rapid changes in the allocation of cultivated areas. These have driven significant changes in the spatial distribution of water use for agriculture particularly due to the intensification of the exploitation of groundwater resources. In 2010, ground water accounted for over 50% of the water used for irrigation.
The land use map derives from satellite data and agricultural statistics for 2010. The classification is based on the dominant or the two dominant natural or cultivated vegetation covers. The area and relative importance of the 16 classes is given in Table 1.
Table 1: Land use classes
The most suitable areas with regards to land and water resources are located in the Orontes valley and in the district of Afrin in the north of the basin. These lands are mainly used for the production of cereals, vegetables or are planted to fruit trees (classes 8, 11, 12) and cover 20% of the study area. These areas have been home to several water projects, the oldest of which are located in the upper and middle reach of the basin. Canal irrigation schemes cover Nearly 40% of the total area of the tree classes 8, 11 and 12.
For the whole study area 45% of the land is uncultivated due to climatic, soil and/or topographical constraints. Steppe and dense forest areas cover almost 20% of the territory. In addition large areas are uncultivable due in particular to the presence of rocky outcrops including large superficial calcareous crust zones.
Table 2: Uncultivated and Cultivated land Per Classes
Part of the calcareous crust surfaces, after being fractured or perforated, can be planted to fruit trees. This technique was used in the Byzantine period, prevalent in the east of the area under study. In Syria, an additional constraint comes from the ban on cultivation enacted in 1995 in areas receiving less than 200 mm of annual rainfall according to the administrative division of the country into five agro climatic zones (Table 3).
Table 3: Definition of agricultural zones in Syria
Mean annual rainfall
higher than 600 mm
from 350 to 600 mm with precipitation higher than 300 mm 2 years out of 3
from 250 to 350 mm with precipitation higher than 250 mm 2 years out of 3
from 250 to 350 mm with precipitation higher than 250 mm 1 year out of 2
from 200 to 250 mm
less than 200 mm
Source: Statistical Abstract 1994, Central Bureau of Statistics, 1995, Damascus
However, the 200 mm limit does not necessarily correspond to the actual average rainfall. Thus in the areas of the Al Qusayr district that receive on an average less than 200 mm of annual rainfall, are classified in zone 4 and were not affected by the ban on cultivation, but the latter applies to the arid areas south and southeast of the study area.
Cultivated areas are divided almost equally between fruit tree orchards and annual crops. Olive trees are the first fruit tree production covering 31% of the cultivated area and 61% of the tree area followed by almond trees and grapevines.
Table 4: Area Planted to Fruit Trees
Fruit tree orchards have expanded considerably since the 1980s, first in the center of the basin and then, in the second half of the 1990s to the east. Orchards have also expanded in Lebanon in the areas of Baalbeck and Laboue in the 1970s and more in recently south of the village of Qaa.
Annual crops are largely dominated by barley and wheat covering 37% and 35% respectively of the area devoted to annual crops. Lentils come in third position far behind with 5% of the total annual crop area followed by potatoes, corn, sugar beets and cotton (Table 5).
Table 5: Area Planted to Annual Crops
Barley is produced mainly on rainfed lands east of the basin; this cereal is entirely used as animal feed. Wheat production is concentrated in the center of the basin and over 50% of the wheat growing area is irrigated.
About 25% of cultivated land in the study area is irrigated and contributes to over 50% of the total crop and tree production. As much as 40% of the area is irrigated from surface water and groundwater and about 60% exclusively from groundwater. Canal irrigation schemes systems cover about 135,000 ha. Most of these lands are irrigated from surface water and groundwater. The increased use of groundwater since the 1980s has indeed reduced the flow of irrigation networks. This decrease led to the drilling of wells and boreholes in canal irrigation schemes which increased the extraction of groundwater further reducing the flow of surface water. The irrigated schemes of Al Qusayr, Ar Rastan and Al Asharinah are currently areas of high concentration of wells.