The Turkish state uses water as a weapon against the population in North and East Syria.
The UN Watercourses Convention of 2014 stipulates the balanced use of transboundary watercourses to prevent significant damage in the area of a shared watercourse. Turkey boycotts this convention and deliberately uses its dams and thus the water of the Euphrates River, for example, as a weapon against the society in North and East Syria.
It is also deliberately destroying the region’s water infrastructure, with serious consequences for the population, agriculture and electricity supply. The civil society in the Democratic Federation of North and East Syria is being held hostage to Turkey’s aggressive expansionist policy, and people are being deprived of an important source of livelihood in their homeland.
The self-government faces major challenges due to the sharp decline in rainfall and the embargo.
“Since the beginning of the year, the Turkish state has again gravely affected the water flow of the Euphrates River. 500,000 people in North and East Syria have already lost their natural source of drinking water as a result, and 5 million more face the same fate,” reads a press release from the Self-Administration of North and East Syria on water policy.
Running Water Only Every 5 Days…
The example of the water supply for the province and city of Hesekê shows the dramatic effects of the occupation by Turkish troops and their jihadist allies.
Sozdar Ahmed, co-chair of the local water board, tells us about the consequences for the people in the city of Hesekê: “Especially here in the city of Hesekê we are currently fighting a major crisis. Since April 12, the water of the longest tributary of the Euphrates has been cut off again due to the misuse of the Elok (Allouk) water station. We were forced to divide the city into five sectors. Every day, only one of the sectors can be supplied with water. So the population only has running water once every five days. We have to encourage people to use it as sparingly as possible and, if possible, to use the water more than once. There are many places that cannot be reached by existing water pipes, which is why we, as the water department of the local administration, have to help out. For this purpose, up to 20 trucks are in operation every day. However, based on the current situation, it would take 300. This water shortage is hitting us especially hard at a time when the number of cases of Corona infection is rising.”
The mentioned pumping station in Elok is located in the territory near Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain), which has been occupied by the Turkish military since 2019, and was cut off from the necessary electricity supply by the troops of the Turkish-controlled “Free Syrian Army” immediately after the occupation. A special agreement between Turkey and the Self-Administration of North and East Syria stipulates that Elok must receive half of the required 600 MW supplied by the power plant near Tirbespiyê, which is located in northeast Syria. However, the “Free Syrian Army” recently cancelled the agreement on its own, diverted the electricity and fed it into its own grid in the occupied territory. Without sufficient power supply, the output of the Elok waterworks had to be reduced to a minimum. The danger that it will have to be shut down altogether is real. This alone puts nearly one million people in the city and province of Hesekê at risk of losing access to water. The towns of Til Temir, Şeddadê, Arisha and thousands of refugees in three camps would be affected, as well as the al Hol camp with over 60,000 people seeking protection, including interned members and supporters of IS.
People have been suffering from this problem since 2019 and there is no solution in sight under the conditions of Turkish occupation.
The three dams on the territory of the self-administration are the central sources of electricity for the region. They are the Firat, Tabqa and Tişrîn dams. They are all directly affected by the Turkish state’s interference in the flow of water from the Euphrates River and have therefore had to massively reduce their electricity production. The regions of Kobanê, Raqqa, Minbîc, Tabqa and Deir ez-Zor are supplied with electrical energy exclusively from these dams. However, due to the current low water level, they can only be operated alternately and only with one of the sometimes up to ten turbines at a time. Instead of the usual output of over 2,500 MW, local experts estimate that they will soon only be able to supply 100 MW. In the worst case, production could drop to a vanishingly small 80 MW.
The report of the first quarter of 2021 documents the sharply declining output of the dams. In addition, the report highlights other serious consequences of the lack of water flow: Due to the low water level, the Euphrates lacks the capacity for natural self-purification in the long term, with disastrous consequences for the river’s ecosystem and thus also for water quality.
The Water Office in North and East Syria provides another hazard analysis for the dam in Tişrîn. If it remains without power for too long, the pumps that keep the water away from the generators will fail and the technology of the generators would be damaged in the long term.
Danger of Groundwater Supplies Drying Up
In the Tabqa dam, 80% of the water reserves have already been used up, which is roughly equivalent to 9.4 km3 of water. Tabqa supplies water to local communities. However, the remaining reserves are now also needed to keep the dam’s technology operational.
Lack of water has a direct impact on basic food supplies and groundwater supplies. North and East Syria is considered Syria’s breadbasket. Dams have provided water for agriculture for decades. However, now that the Euphrates River is carrying less and less water and the reservoirs are becoming smaller and smaller, farmers are forced to rely more and more on groundwater supplies. Ever deeper dug wells and the intensive use of this resource are lowering the groundwater level. With such continued consumption, there is a threat that it will run dry within the next two years.
The current drought is forcing farmers to harvest earlier in order not to lose the entire yield for the year. A further decline in wheat cultivation is expected in the coming years, with negative consequences for the food supply of the population and for the economy of the entire region.
Economically, the low water flow of the Euphrates River, deliberately brought about by Turkey, also affects the remaining fishermen. Their livelihoods are at risk. Many of them have already had to leave the region or look for other sources of income.
Members of the Self-Administration who are responsible for the water supply in all districts describe the situation as threatening and catastrophic.This is not only true for North and East Syria.
In Iraq, too, people are suffering from the Turkish state’s water policy. By deliberately withdrawing water, Turkey is also putting pressure on this neighboring state. According to official figures from the Ministry of Water Resources in Iraq, water levels in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have dropped by nearly 50% since the 1980s. The once-abundant Euphrates River has fallen from a capacity of 30 billion cubic meters of water to nearly half that, 16 billion cubic meters, according to official announcements. Iraqi Minister Hassan al-Janabi, in charge of the country’s Water Department, predicts a further decline of at least 50% by 2030. The consequences for the local society are hard to imagine.
Conflicts and wars over the precious resource of water are a threat worldwide, not only in the Middle East. If governments that use water as a means of their foreign policy, their quest for power and as a weapon are not stopped, the dangers to people and their natural livelihoods will intensify.
However, the people of North and East Syria do not remain passive. Sozdar Ahmed said that she will seek support by all means. As part of these efforts, she said, meetings and talks have already been held with the United Nations, various human rights and civil rights organizations, the United States, Russia and the Red Cross, with the aim of putting pressure on Turkey. “But we don’t see any change, we only get empty promises and nice words,” Sozdar Ahmed said.
But the society is not discouraged by this. “The people and their Self-Administration have already been able to solve bigger problems. The Turkish state’s attempts to dry up our area will not be able to dissuade us from building the new society.”
This article was first published in the July/August 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.