How does the decline of the Euphrates impact lives in North and East Syria?

This report by Ahmad Othman was published by North Press Agency on 12 August, 2023

The majority of residents of northeastern Syria suffer from electricity and water shortage, especially drinking water. These problems are caused by the severe and continuous decline in the level of Euphrates River, and Turkey’s withholding of its water.

Syria depends heavily on the Euphrates River, which is the largest river that passes through its territory, and has built three dams on it, the largest of which is the Euphrates Dam, followed by Tishrin and al-Hurriya, which is a regulatory dam for the riverbed. These dams used to provide electricity, drinking water and irrigation for agricultural lands.

But Turkey’s withholding of the river’s water affected agriculture, drinking water and irrigation, as well as decline of the level of the lakes, which causes humanitarian and environmental problems. In addition to its effect on agriculture and electricity, the shortage of water from the Euphrates caused the spread of diseases and epidemics.

Its water became a fertile environment for the spread of germs and bacteria, in addition to damaging the infrastructure of the dams. Since February 2020, Turkey continues to withhold water from the Euphrates river to Syria, amid warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe, as a result of the decline in the level of the lakes.

Agricultural Damage

Turkey continues to withhold the flow of water from the Euphrates River towards Syrian and Iraqi lands, amid regional and international warnings of a health and agricultural disaster in the region.

Withholding water from the river increased the suffering of farmers, and pushed them to buy diesel engines and additional water pipes to draw water from the river through them. These matters pose a burden on them due to the high costs on farmers.

Farmers had to use long pipes to draw water from the Euphrates river to follow its course after it receded hundreds of meters, which warns of desertification of the lands.

Turkey violates the water agreement signed between Ankara and Damascus, which stipulates a flow of 500 cubic meters per second to Syria and Iraq. However, the amount that currently reaches to lands does not exceed 200 cubic meters per second.

Farmers slammed the local and international silence towards this issue, stressing that if water shortage continues, it will affects residents of the region.

Earlier, Raqqa’s Irrigation Bureau, affiliated with Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), recommended that farmers should adhere to the summer agricultural plan, in light of the decline of water level of Euphrates and the lake by more than 4 meters below its storage.

On June 15, the Agriculture and Irrigation Committee, affiliated with the AANES, issued a circular stating the need to adhere to the allowed area for cultivation and reduce the area of the intensive season by 10 percent to become 33 percent of the total irrigated area.

Earlier, Imad Abeed, an administrator at the Euphrates Dam Committee, said that for about two months, the water level in the lake has been dropping by two cm daily, posing a danger to the summer seasons for farmers, due to their inability to open water for irrigation channels.

In the countryside of Raqqa, Tabqa and Deir ez-Zor, farmers complain of a lack of irrigation water regarding the main channels and drought in the artesian wells, which exposed agricultural crops to damage and harm.

Bad Electricity Situation

Residents of northeastern Syria complain of the scarcity of hours of electricity supply and its outage for long periods that sometimes reach 22 hours, and their suffering is exacerbated by the inability of most of them to resort to alternatives to electricity due to its high costs.

The electricity was affected by the low water level, as dams are about to be out of service “completely”.

Hamoud al-Hamadin, an official at Tishrin Dam, said that the dam stops working for 18 hours a day, after exhausting of 85 percent of the lake level, expecting it to be out of service “permanently” at any moment.

The electric power is distributed at the minimum possible limit that does not meet the needs of economy and population, especially in summer season amid of high temperatures.

The low water level affected the electricity situation, which led to an “unfair” rationing.

“For more than thirty months, imports of the Euphrates River are at their lowest level, due to water withholding by the Turkish side, without any changes or helpful measures” al-Hamadin told North Press.

He added that the Euphrates River and dams lakes are in “the worst condition”, and at their lowest level in light of the high and continuous heat wave, and at the urgent need for drinking and irrigation water.

The storage level of Tishrin Dam is 325 meters above sea level, while the dead storage level is 320 meters, however the current level reached 320.30 meters. This means that the dam may stop working at any moment, if it reaches the dead level.

Exhausted dams

In a previous statement, Ahmad Oso, director of al-Hurriya Dam, said that the dam’s production decreased from 75 megawatts per hour to 14 megawatts due to the lack of water supply by Turkey.

Additionally, due to limited water supply, approximately 3.5 billion cubic meters were depleted from the strategic storage of the Euphrates Dam’s reservoir. This depletion caused the lake level to decrease to 10.5 billion cubic meters out of its original capacity of 14.5 billion cubic meters.

According to Imad Obeid, an administrator at the Dam, the water flowing from Turkey is not used for electricity generation. Instead, it is depleted through evaporation caused by high temperatures, as well as for drinking water and irrigation purposes.

Obeid further explained that out of the eight turbines, six are currently inactive, and the remaining two turbines are operating at half capacity. Under normal conditions, each turbine has the capacity to produce 120 megawatts per hour. However, due to the limited water supply, they are currently only able to generate up to 45 megawatts per hour.

The dam official expressed concerns about the possibility of shutting down the dam. This is because the current water level of the Euphrates Lake has reached 298.45 meters, which is close to the critical threshold of 296 meters, known as the dead level. The maximum operational level of the lake is 304 meters. If the water level drops to the dead level, the dam will cease to function.

Environmental and Health Impacts

The continuous decline in Euphrates water threatens all aspects of life. Withholding the river water for more than 30 months portends a humanitarian and environmental disaster.

Due to an increase in impurities, bacteria, and germs in the river water, many water stations have been compelled to enhance their water sterilization processes. This measure has become necessary after incidents of water-related poisoning and the spread of cholera were reported.

In addition to the difficulty of extracting water from the river due to its receding flow, some water stations have been rendered out of service while others have had to resort to constructing channels to follow the course of the river. Furthermore, the power supply to these stations has been affected.

Due to the recession of the riverbed, residents in areas near the Euphrates River have been experiencing issues with contaminated drinking water. This situation has not only impacted their access to clean water but has also affected agricultural activities that rely on the river as a water source.

During the past period, there has been a significant decline in the fish stock in the Euphrates River, as well as in the lakes and artificial basins located within the riverbed. This decline can be attributed to the decreased water level of the Euphrates.

Despite the severe decline of Euphrates level and the disasters it presages, there has been a lack of proactive response from the Syrian government and the international actors involved in Syria.