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Syria’s water crisis is caused by conflict and climate change
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Syria’s water crisis is caused by conflict and climate change

The dry basin rim of Tabqa Dam shows how much the water level of Lake Assad has dropped


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 from dry, dead wood and drops it onto the grey ground. “My brother, and I once planted here 8,000 trees. He recalls that there were more than olive trees. There were also grape vines and lemon trees. “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’.” Alahri explained that this year, another 3000 trees died and withered because they didn’t have enough water. 

This is despite Ayid Saghir (a village of 1,000 inhabitants where Alahri resides) being located only 3 km (1.8 miles), from the Tabqa Dam, Syria’s largest river.  The Assad reservoir is visible from Alahri’s olive grove.

The dry basin rim of Tabqa Dam

The Tabqa Dam’s Tabqa Dam’s dry basin rim demonstrates how much Lake Assad’s water level has fallen

Six meters has been lost in the reservoir water level since 2020. The Euphrates water level is so low that pumps meant to supply villages and farms can’t reach the river. 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.  

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Globally,the Middle East is among the regions worst affected by the climate crisis. The rainy season ended in Syria two months late in winter 2020-2021 and two months earlier than usual. according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). FAO also discovered that the extreme heat of April in many locations affected harvest. 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.  

This is due to the fact that water from Euphrates flowing into Syria from Turkey has reduced the situation.

“The Euphrates water shortage has a direct effect on the daily lives and livelihoods of millions.” Bo Viktor Nylund representing UNICEF Syria said that drinking water is in short supply in three of Syria’s government districts. These are Deir-ez-Zor Raqqa, Aleppo, and Raqqa. “We urgently require a discussion at the regional levels to find a resolution as soon as possible.”  

A man looks out over a severely shrunken lake

The West Lake, once a vital reservoir, is no longer a viable option after extreme drought.

The Euphrates runs through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Ataturk Dam can be found 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 the country to dry up, it doesn’t matter to IS,” he stated. 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 PYD, claiming it is the Syrian arm the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which it fights as a terrorist group. 

A motorcycle rides through an empty riverbed

This riverbed was once used for a bike track. Now dry, the Khabour was once the largest Euphrates River tributary.

Ayid Sadir believes that Turkey deliberately withholds water. 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.” DW asked several questions about this subject and the Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond. 

Impacts on health and energy

More than just for agriculture, the lack of water has serious consequences. UNICEFPoor water quality can lead to more cases of diarrhea, especially in children. Power supply can also be threatened by low water quality. 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. In the past, Hasakah was called the “breadbasket” of Syria. It once produced half the country’s grain. Today, the reservoirs to the north of al-Hasakah are small puddles that young men can use to catch fish with their naked hands. 

A woman leans against a wall, with the cityscape of al-Hasakah in the background

Majde Emin was the al-Hasakah deputy mayor since the start of the year

The lack of rain has caused the Khabur river, which was supposed to provide drinking water for the city, to dry up. The Alouk water pumping station, near the Turkish border, is all that remains for al-Hasakah. But for the last two years the waterworks, which supply more than 460,000 people with drinking water, have only functioned intermittently.

Alouk water plant disputed 

“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. It is still in operation. However, it has been down for nearly 90 days since January 2019 and was only half-full for 140 days. 

Ankara blames AANES for the cut in power supply to the station. Alouk has been placed under neutral administration by the UN but attempts to do so have failed. Nylund also stated that UNICEF has no access to the waterworks. 

Mohammed Abdo (right), his wife Bahrya Ibrahim and her sister Berivan

Mohammed Abdo feels left out by the international community.

Large water tanks are now used to supply drinking water for residents of al-Hasakah. They are transported into the city via 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

Our family is dependent on our son’s income. 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 Khashman and is chairman of the local district board for several months. Abdo states that many Khashman residents are struggling because their fields are dry up. 

“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 are going to fight, they should fight on the frontlines. But they shouldn’t use water as a weapon.” he stated. This is not the end of life. They are killing us — just slowly.”

Original text of this article was in German. Translated by Johanna Thompson 


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