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Water in northeastern Syria… War by Other Means

Zozan Hasan

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Zozan Hasan who prepared this material in the favor of the partnership between Nextep Organization and Welat FM and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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Over more than ten years of the devastating conflict in Syria, the Syrians have lived through various types of suffering. Yet the people of the northeastern Syria region have faced additional hardship since the water turned into a weapon of war against them in recent years. The crisis began with a drop in the Euphrates river waters received from Turkey, exacerbated by climate change, which has become a real danger for the region in general and northeastern Syria in particular. And recently, the Syrian pro-Turkish factions controlling Alouk station located in the city of Serê kaniyê / Ras Alain, which supplies the city of Hasaka and its countryside with drinking water. All together has increased the political and military conflicts between the warring parties in Syria, not to mention the divergent interests of the relevant regional and international powers, which are now influencing Syrians’ lives with no looming solutions.

From the Syrian Jazeera (Island), the previously called “Syria’s food basket” due to its abundance of water, talks Laila Iskan, a resident of the Al-Tala’i neighborhood in the city of Hasaka. Laila describes her fear for the future to Welat FM “We never expected we’d get to this point of suffering… Indeed, when I follow the political and economic news, I feel deep fear of what is to come. I imagine a day in which we will have to ration the drinking water and will not be able to drink it every time we are thirsty, even if it is available!”

Layla added, “All is said now are nothing but indicators of an expected human catastrophe. I don’t know what the solutions are or what is supposed to be done to avoid this catastrophe?! All I want is that there will be cooperation between the people and the existing authorities, as it seems that no one cares about us or our daily suffering.”
Since last year, the water flow to the Euphrates Dam has begun to drop to unprecedented degrees. The effects of water scarcity have appeared in several aspects: including the reduction in the number of power supply hours, the decline in crop production, the high negative effect on livestock, and the massive damage to the health sector as a result of the water stagnation resulting from its low level, as the Euphrates Dam is considered strategic for Syria in general, and northeastern Syria in particular. There is a major power plant with (9) turbines, mainly servicing the public network of the entire country but now partly supplies the region of northeastern Syrian. in addition to the storage lake with thousands of hectares planted on both banks of the river.

According to the Energy Office in the Autonomous Administration of North and Northeastern Syria, the level of the Euphrates River has decreased by five meters for the first time in its history. The “office” stated that the main reason is Turkey’s reservation of the river’s water, as the flow does not exceed 200 cubic meters per second. The Autonomous Administration considered that as a violation of the agreement signed between Syria and Turkey in 1987, in which Turkey committed to releasing at least 500 cubic meters per second, to be shared by Iraq (downstream state) and Syria (transit state), at a rate of (58%) for Iraq, and (42%) for Syria, out of the total quantity received from Turkey.

The decline in the water level of the Euphrates River has left large areas of agricultural land out of service, threatening the livelihoods of a large proportion of the people of northeastern Syria who depend mainly on agriculture.

Turkey’s role in the water crisis and its disputes with the Autonomous Administration 

“The main objective of all Turkey’s practices is to destabilize the region,” said Abdulkareem Omar, the co-president of the Department of Foreign Relations in the Autonomous Administration for Welat FM. According to Omar, the lack of water will cause serious harm to the region’s population economically, making it easier for ISIS to reorganize itself and get access to these societies again by exploiting their poverty and need.
Omar stressed that Turkey’s lowering of the water level and its targeting of the Alouk station leads to a lack of services in all aspects of life, leading to a backlash among the residents of the region toward the ِAutonomous Administration, which also contributes to achieving Turkey’s objective in destabilizing the region. Omar also mentioned that the Euphrates River became a blackmail card against the international community; one of many cards that Turkey uses to achieve its expansionist ambitions and economic objectives in Syria.

Despite Turkey’s violation of the aforementioned agreement, and its impact on the entire Syrian economy, the Syrian government did not show any reaction, except for some “weak and timid” statements, according to Omar who added that the Syrian government did not take any actual steps to prevent this violation. On the other hand, he stressed that the water crisis is at the top of the discussions of Autonomous Administration officials with foreign delegations visiting the region “We have sent several messages to the international community, the Red Cross, and UNICEF. Despite the consensus on the need to neutralize water from political conflicts. However, Turkey continues exploiting its geopolitical position and membership in NATO to achieve its political ambitions.”

According to Walat Darwish, the co-president of the Energy Office in the Autonomous Administration: “the maximum storage level of the Euphrates Dam Lake located in the city of Tabqa, west of Raqqa Governorate, is 304 meters above sea level, and today it is only 302.33 meters. By comparing the numbers, we notice a decrease in the level estimated at 1.67 meters vertically.
As for Tishreen Dam Lake, Darwish stated for Welat FM: “in the case of the maximum storage, the water level is 325 meters above sea level, but today it has decreased to 321.76 meters .. this means that the lake has decreased by 3.24 meters vertically.”
Via WhatsApp call, Hamoud Al-Hamadin, an administrator in Tishreen Dam, discusses the role of international and humanitarian groups in the region, which, according to Al-Hamadin, did not match the risk level of the catastrophe and “is limited to taking pictures, either personally or via drones, showing the unprecedented historical decline of water, which threatens to destroy water and food security, and also threatens the lives of millions of people, not to mention the lack of power supply, which has barely reached two hours a day in most areas.

How does climate change exacerbate the water crisis?

In light of the climatic changes plaguing the region, the regions of northeastern Syria will face catastrophic conditions associated with the ongoing conflict of the Syrian war. Harry Stepyanian, an energy and water expert based in Washington, DC, exclusively stated to Welat FM: “The region is among the most vulnerable to the potential impacts of climate change in the world, as the increase in average temperatures is expected to be relatively high, which means fewer rainfall rates,” This, according to Stepyanian, will impose a negative impact on agricultural life and water supplies across the agricultural lands. The ratio of precipitation in Syria and Iraq has also reduced by 15% to 25%, and the discharge of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is expected to decrease by 29 to 73%, added Stepyanian.
Stepyanian stated: “The record drop in river water and precipitation this year will deprive some areas in both Syria and Iraq of drinking water, as well as the agricultural land need of water, with a high probability that drought will affect more than 12 million people in both countries due to the loss of access to secure water, and food shortages in some areas of Syria,” he also added: “the reduction in water level this summer would disable hydroelectric power, which will have an impact on fundamental services.”

According to its officials, the Turkish side constantly emphasizes that climate change and the severe shortage of precipitation resulted in a severe drought hitting the Turkish lands before the Syrian ones, denying any political dimensions to the water crisis with Syria. As for Alouk water station, Turkey denies the related accusations, saying that Alouk station is powered by electric power generated from the Tishreen Dam, which is under the control of the Autonomous Administration, which, according to Turkey, has been cutting the power frequently and intentionally since November 2019.
On the other hand, the Autonomous Administration and the Syrian government continue to accuse Turkey of using water as a weapon of war against the Syrians amid its conflicts with the Syrian war parties, since Turkey’s exploitation of the water crisis has become a prelude to a humanitarian disaster in light of climate changes that have increased the problem, where conflict countries are usually affected more than others. Both sides confirm that Turkey has reduced the water share since the 1990s by building seven dams on the Euphrates stream on the Turkish side, including the Ataturk Dam, which was inaugurated in July 1992. The dam is located on the Euphrates River at a distance of 24 km from the city of Bozova whose lake contains 50 billion cubic meters of water and contributes to the generation of 2400 megawatts of electricity.
The Autonomous Administration also refutes the Turkish accusations and those of the pro-Turkey Syrian opposition factions regarding Alouk water station. It says that the Turkish forces are requesting an increase in electricity supply to their areas of control. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights affirmed this account by featuring that the Turkish forces asked the Autonomous Administration for more power supply to their area of ​​control, which was rejected, leading to the complete cutting off the water from Hasaka by the pro-Turkey Syrian opposition factions
Amid the undeniable climate change and the conflicts between the conflicting powers in the Syrian war, the water issue can be described as the weapon that most threatens the country’s future as the access to water has become difficult for thousands of Syrians, although this right is safeguarded by human rights treaties.
Whatever the causes of the water crisis are, the regions of northeastern Syria are on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe amid the absence of serious solutions, the failure to achieve consensus and rapprochement between the parties to the Syrian conflict, and in light of climate changes that threaten the whole world. All of that requires finding quick and sustainable solutions to avoid the worst.