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Syria - Climate

Syria is an arid and semi-arid country with limited water resources. In fact, about three-fifths of the country has less than 25 centimeters of rain a year. The country has large areas of semi-arid and desert environment. Natural forests cover only 2% of its landscape; and around 10% of its forests cover was lost between 1990 and 1995.

Most of Syria is affected by desertification, particularly over the area between the Badia region in the west and the agricultural lands in the east. This region is suffering from mismanagement and misuse of natural resources, and from the drought that has been affecting the country. In general, climatic limitation, extensive clearance of natural vegetation, excessive grazing, agricultural expansion into the natural habitat, unsuitable irrigation techniques, and soil salinization have contributed to land degradation, reduced water supply, and limited agricultural production in most of Syria.

Soil erosion is affected by climatic properties such as unequal and limited rainfall, temperature and wind, and by human factors such as population growth, urbanization and the expansion of transportation infrastructure that Syria has experienced since the late 1990s. Soil sealing (the loss of soil resources due to the covering of land for construction work) is another concern. In the mountainous region, on the other hand, forest fires have affected 8,000 ha during the period 1985-1993. This contributed to the water erosion in a region that is already susceptible to water erosion due to its natural condition: steep and long slopes, shallow soil cover, high rainfall average (800-1,500mm), and frequent rain storms. In addition, there has also been a severe change in the ecosystem in Syria since the end of 1950s.

The most striking feature of the climate is the contrast of sea and desert. Between the humid Mediterranean coast and the arid desert regions lies a semiarid steppe zone extending across three-fourths of the country and bordered on the west by the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and the Jabal an Nusayriyah, on the north by the Turkish mountain region, and on the southeast by the Jabal al Arab, Jabal ar Ruwaq, Jabal Abu Rujmayn, and the Jabal Bishri ranges.

Rainfall in this area is fairly abundant, annual precipitation ranging between 75 and 100 centimeters. Most of the rain, carried by winds from the Mediterranean, falls between November and May. The annual mean temperatures range from 7.2 C in January to 26.6 C in August. Because the high ridges of the Jabal an Nusayriyah catch most of the rains from the Mediterranean, the Al Ghab depression, located east of these mountains, is in a relatively arid zone with warm, dry winds and scanty rainfall. Frost is unknown in any season, although the peaks of the Jabal an Nusayriyah are sometimes snow covered.

Farther south, rain-bearing clouds from the Mediterranean pass through the gap between the Jabal an Nusayriyah and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, reaching the area of Homs and, sometimes, the steppe region east of that city. Still farther to the south, however, the Anti-Lebanon Mountains bar the rains from the Mediterranean, and the area, including the capital city of Damascus, becomes part of the semiarid climatic zone of the steppe, with precipitation averaging less than 20 centimeters a year and with temperatures from 4.4 C in January to 37.7 C in July and August. The vicinity of the capital is, nevertheless, verdant and cultivable because of irrigation from the Barada River by aqueducts built during Roman times.

In the southeast, the humidity decreases, and annual precipitation falls below 10 centimeters. The scanty amounts of rain, moreover, are highly variable from year to year, causing periodic droughts. In the barren stony desert south of the Jabal ar Ruwaq, Jabal Abu Rujmayn, and Jabal Bishri ranges, temperatures in July often exceed 43.3 C. Sandstorms, common during February and May, damage vegetation and prevent grazing. North of the desert ranges and east of the Al Ghab depression lie the vast steppes of the plateau, where cloudless skies and high daytime temperatures prevail during the summer, but frosts, at times severe, are common from November to March. Precipitation averages 25 centimeters a year but falls below 20 centimeters in a large belt along the southern desert area. In this belt, only the Euphrates and Khabur rivers provide sufficient water for settlement and cultivation.

Floods are a common hazard and have been occurring more frequently in recent years. No region in Syria is immune to flood hazard. Floods occur in rural areas as well as in urban areas where drainage systems are poorly maintained. They are usually associated with winter rains and snow melt. In the regions where winter rains are not heavy, the 175 dams of Syria present another hazard. Floods result in death and damage to property, livestock, infrastructure and historical sites. They also interrupt daily life, especially when they occur in cities.

The number of sandstorms has increased dramatically in the last few years, sometimes happening twice a week in some areas. This increase is due in part to the degradation of green cover in Syria caused by overgrazing, desertification, soil degradation and salinization, unwise agricultural practices and climate change. Sand storms result in numerous respiratory problems, obscured visibility, extensive house cleaning and debris removal, and daily life interruption. They might also cause damage to crops and remove nutrient-rich particles from farming lands.

Like many of its neighbors, Syria faces water shortages, particularly in the southern part of the country. One NGO estimated that over 6,000 illegal wells are depleting the groundwater resources. There is no charge for agricultural use of water despite agriculture using more than 80 percent of water resources. The Barada River, once a mountain stream sparkling through Damascus is now a water trickle passing through mounds of garbage - if anyone were to follow the steps of Saint Paul and be baptized there they would be likely to develop a severe rash.

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