The September sun is setting over the old olive grove as Ahmad Mahmoud Alahri walks pensively from tree to tree.
The 52-year old takes a piece of dead wood and breaks it off, then drops it on the grayish ground. “My brother and I once planted 8,000 trees here. There were not just olives, but also lemon trees and grape vines,” he recalls. “When the ‘Islamic State (IS)’ cut off our Water to make us compliant, and then 3,000 of our trees died, we thought: ‘it can’t get any worse’.” But this year, another 3,000 trees withered and died, Alahri explains, “because we have no water.”
This is despite Ayid Sghir, the village of 1,000 people where Alahri resides, being located only 3 kilometers (1.8 mi) from the Tabqa Dam, on the Euphrates. Syria’s largest river. From Alahri’s olive grove, the Assad reservoir in front of the dam is visible in the distance.
The reservoir’s water level has dropped six meters since 2020. The Euphrates is so low, that the pumps meant to supply the nearby villages and fields cannot reach the river water. About a third of the approximately 200 pumps along the Euphrates were affected by low water levels in 2021 and more than 5 million people in the region lack adequate access to water, UN data.
What is causing the water crisis?
Globally,the Middle East is among the regions worst affected by the climate crisis. The rainy season in Syria ended two months later than usual in the winter 2020-2021. according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). FAO also discovered that extreme heat in April caused many harvest losses. Then, this summer, the country suffered its worst drought in 70 years, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN agency expects losses of at least 75% of field crops and up to 25% of irrigated crops throughout northeastern Syria.
The Euphrates, which are waterways that flow into Syria from Turkey, has caused the situation to worsen.
“The insufficient flow of water from the Euphrates has a direct impact on the daily lives of millions of people. Drinking water is running short in at least three government districts in Syria: in Deir-ez-Zor, Raqqa and Aleppo,” said Bo Viktor Nylund, representative of the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF in Syria. “We urgently need a conversation at the regional level to find a solution as soon as possible.”
The Euphrates runs through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The Ataturk Dam is located on the Turkish side. After the dam was completed in 1987, Turkey pledged to allow an annual average of more than 500 cubic meters per second of Euphrates water to pass through to Syria. But this summer that dwindled to 215 cubic meters per second.
Turkey and Syria’s water supply
Farmer Ahmad Mahmoud Alahri sees Turkey as primarily responsible for the situation. “Turkey wants to dry us out, there is no difference to IS,” he said. For almost three years, the so-called Islamic State held sway in the village of Ayid Saghir, before the Kurdish-led fighting alliance Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) drove them out of the region in 2017.
Since then, the region has been considered the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) under the leadership of the Kurdish PYD party. Turkey accuses the PYD of being the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and fights it as a terrorist organization.
Many people in Ayid Sadir believe that Turkey deliberately withholds water, just like Alahri. But that cannot be proven, said UN representative Nylund: “We see that the water has decreased a lot, but we need to analyze further why the water levels are so low.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry did not reply to several inquiries on the subject from DW.
Health and energy impact
More than just for agriculture, the lack of water has serious consequences. UNICEFPoor water quality is leading significantly to high levels of illness. More cases of disease such as diarrhea, especially among children. Low water levels also threaten the power supply. Three hydroelectric power stations on the Euphrates River provide electricity to approximately 3 million people in northeastern Syria.
The water crisis is even worse in the Hasaka region, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of Ayid Saghir. Hasakah, in the past called the “breadbasket of Syria,” once produced around half of the country’s grain. Today, the reservoirs north and northeast of al-Hasakah are small puddles that young men can use to catch fish with their naked hands.
The city’s river, the Khabur, which is supposed to supply drinking water, has dried up due to the lack of rain. The Alouk water pumping station, near the Turkish border, is all that remains for the residents of al-Hasakah. But for the last two years the waterworks, which supply more than 460,000 people with drinking water, have only functioned intermittently.
Dispute about Alouk water plant
“The situation has been particularly tense since Turkey occupied Sere Kaniye (known in Arabic as Ras al Ain) in 2019 and took control of Alouk,” said Majda Emin, deputy-mayor of the town of al-Hasakah.
In October 2019, the Turkish army entered northern Syria and created a 30-kilometer “buffer zone” where the Alouk pumping station is located — ostensibly to prevent acts of terrorism. Although it is currently operational, there have been nearly 90 days of no water station operation and more than 140 days when it was operating at half capacity.
Ankara blames the AANES for cutting the station’s power supply. Alouk’s neutral administration, such that the UN has attempted to place it, has so far failed. Nylund also stated that UNICEF has no access to the waterworks.
Large water tanks are now used to supply drinking water to the residents of al-Hasakah. They are transported to the city on trucks. But the water is expensive: 1,000 liters cost around 6,000 lira, or about 2 euros ($2.25) — a lot of money in a region where the average salary is the equivalent of just €53 a month.
Water becomes unaffordable
“We depend on our son’s salary for our family. He earns 250,000 lira (€88) a month as a driver in the military. And now we have to spend 60,000 lira (€21) on water every month — and the water is barely enough,” said Mohammed Abdo.
The 60-year old lives in the Khashman neighbourhood and has been chairman for several months of the local district council. Abdo says many Khashman residents are in desperate need of help because their fields have dried up completely.
“We have been forgotten, no one helps us, no aid organization — no one,” he complains. Abdo is angry — at the municipality, at the international community, but most of all at Turkey. “If they want to fight, they should do it on the frontlines, but not use water as a weapon,” he said. “This is not life. They are killing us — just slowly.”
This article was originally written by a German writer. Translated by: Johanna Thompson