Transnational water conflicts lurk on the Euphrates River. Climate change, war and agricultural expansion have resulted in prolonged droughts. Turkey has been accused of shutting off water for Syria for political reasons.
Every spring, the water of the Euphrates River usually overflows into the olive grove belonging to Khaled al-Khamees, a resident of Rumaylah village in Aleppo province, Syria. But these days, the ancient river just swerves in the distance. The trees withered. Drinking water is getting scarce.
"It was as if we were living in the desert," the 50-year-old farmer said above his garden by the river. "We were thinking of leaving because there is no more water to drink or to irrigate these trees," he said.
Aid organizations and environmental groups have warned of the catastrophe of water scarcity plaguing northeastern Syria. The flow of water is reduced by the damage to infrastructure caused by the protracted war.
The water level in a number of hydroelectric dams is at its lowest level since January 2021. This threatens the supply of water and electricity for five million residents, amid the corona pandemic and economic crisis.
When the dry season grips the Mediterranean coast, many residents in the ethnic Kurdish region accuse Turkey of arming river water to crush separatism in the southeast. Ankara has denied the accusations.
Outside the village of Rumayleh, irrigation pipes were left lying around collecting dust. The water level of the Euphrates River is already so low, making the operating costs of water pumps soaring. Residents finally stopped pumping.
Instead, they are now moving the garden closer to the riverbank. Khamees said he had never seen such a low water level. "The women have to walk about seven kilometers to get a bucket of water for the children to drink," said the father of 12.
Water level near 'dead zone'
Celebrated as the river that flows through the Paradise of Eden in the biblical story, the Euphrates River travels 2,800 kilometers from Turkey, through Syria before emptying into Iraq.
Along the coast, scattered orchards of olives, wheat or beans that support the people of both countries downstream through the war.
The reduction in water flow is now forcing the Tishrin Dam, which holds the Euphrates River water from Turkey, to reduce production. The water level, according to the dam's chief operator, Hammoud al-Hadiyyeen, was already dangerous. The situation is approaching a humanitarian catastrophe.
Since January 2021, the water level has decreased by five meters. The water level is now only a few centimeters above the "dead zone," where the dam's turbines will automatically stop due to water shortages.
"The capacity of the hydroelectric dam in northeastern Syria since last year has reportedly fallen by as much as 70 percent," said Energy Authority chief Welat Darwish.
A third of the pumping stations that are scattered along riverbanks are now also starting to run out of water, or even dry up altogether.
Cross-demarcation water conflicts
The biggest problem for Syria and Iraq is water sources abroad. Nearly 90 percent of the water that irrigates the Euphrates River comes from Turkey.
To ensure a fair supply, in 1987 Turkey agreed to deliver at least 500 cubic meters of water per second to Syria. But the number has shrunk to 200 cubic meters/second in recent months.
Is the cause related to politics?
In Syria, the Euphrates River flows through the Kurdish region, which is often at odds with Turkey due to the terrorism of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which wants independence. Since recently, Ankara has been accused of arming water, when the volume flowing through dams in Syria has been drastically reduced
Last June, the government in Damascus again urged Turkey to increase the flow of Euphrates water. However, a Turkish diplomat has denied the allegations. He said Ankara "never ordered a reduction in the flow of water for political or other reasons."
"Our region is experiencing one of the most severe dry seasons due to climate change. And rainfall in southern Turkey is at its lowest level in 30 years," he added.
But according to security analyst Nicholas Heras, Turkey often "uses the Alouk plant," to "arm the water." In 2019, the United Nations reported that the water supply from the dam had experienced 24 disruptions since 2019, and affected 460,000 residents.
For Syria analyst Fabrice Balanche, climate change and drought are being used by Ankara to achieve its long-term goal of "economically strangling northeast Syria."
"In dry times, Turkey was selfish and allowed the Kurdish region to run out of water, even though they understood the consequences."