A man in a long robe stands in a gently rolling field in Syria full of withered olive trees
Global Ideas

Dead trees and dry lakes: Syria's water crisis

Northeastern Syria is experiencing its worst drought in nearly 70 years, with rising temperatures and erratic weather exacerbated by tensions with Turkey.

The September sun is setting over the old olive grove as Ahmad Mahmoud Alahri walks pensively from tree to tree. 

The 52-year-old breaks off a piece of dry, dead wood and drops it on the dusty gray ground. "My brother and I once planted 8,000 trees here. There were not just olives, but also lemon trees and grape vines," he recalls. "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'." But this year, another 3,000 trees withered and died, Alahri explains, "because we have no water." 

This is despite the fact Ayid Saghir, the 1,000-inhabitant village where Alahri lives, is located just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates, Syria's largest river.  From Alahri's olive grove, the Assad reservoir in front of the dam is visible in the distance.

The dry basin rim of Tabqa Dam
The dry basin rim of the Tabqa Dam shows how much the water level of Lake Assad has droppedImage: Daniela Sala/DW

Since 2020, the water level of the reservoir has dropped by six meters. The Euphrates is so low that the pumping stations supposed to supply the surrounding villages and fields can no longer reach the river water. 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, according to UN data.  

What is driving the water crisis?

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

The situation is exercerbated by a reduction in water from the Euphrates arriving in Syria from Turkey.

"The insufficient flow of water from the Euphrates has a direct impact on the daily lives of millions of people. Drinking water is running short in at least three government districts in Syria: in Deir-ez-Zor, Raqqa and Aleppo," said Bo Viktor Nylund, representative of the UN Children's Fund UNICEF in Syria. "We urgently need a conversation at the regional level to find a solution as soon as possible."  

A man looks out over a severely shrunken lake
After extreme drought not much is left of the West Lake, once an important reservoirImage: Daniela Sala/DW

The Euphrates flows through Turkey, Syria and Iraq. On the Turkish side is the Ataturk Dam. 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 to dry us out, there is no difference to IS," he said. 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 the PYD of being the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and fights it as a terrorist organization. 

A motorcycle rides through an empty riverbed
Dry riverbed used as a motorcycle track. The Khabour, now dry, was once the largest tributary of the Euphrates RiverImage: Daniela Sala/DW

Like Alahri, many people in Ayid Saghir believe that Turkey is deliberately withholding 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." The Turkish Foreign Ministry did not reply to several inquiries on the subject from DW. 

Health and energy impacts

The lack of water is having serious consequences for more than just agriculture. According to UNICEF, poor water quality is leading to significantly more cases diseases such as diarrhea, especially among children. Low water levels also threaten the power supply. Around 3 million people in northeastern Syria get their electricity primarily from three hydroelectric power plants on the Euphrates River. 

The water crisis is even worse in the Hasaka region, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of Ayid Saghir. Hasakah, in the past called the "breadbasket of Syria," once produced around half of the country's grain. Today, the reservoirs north of the regional capital al-Hasakah have shrunk to large puddles where young men catch fish with their bare hands. 

A woman leans against a wall, with the cityscape of al-Hasakah in the background
Majde Emin has been the deputy mayor of al-Hasakah since the beginning of the yearImage: Daniela Sala/DW

The city's river, the Khabur, which is supposed to supply drinking water, has dried up due to the lack of rain. All that remains for the people of al-Hasakah at the moment is the Alouk water pumping station near the Turkish border. But for the last two years the waterworks, which supply more than 460,000 people with drinking water, have only functioned intermittently.

Dispute over Alouk water plant 

"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. Although it is currently in operation, since January this year there were nearly 90 days when the water station did not run at all and more than 140 days when it operated at half capacity. 

Ankara blames the AANES for cutting the station's power supply. Attempts to place Alouk under neutral administration, such as by the UN, have so far failed. UNICEF also has no direct access to the waterworks, said Nylund. 

Mohammed Abdo (right), his wife Bahrya Ibrahim and her sister Berivan
Mohammed Abdo and his family feel left alone by the international communityImage: Daniela Sala/DW

The people in al-Hasakah now get their drinking water from large water tanks that are brought into the city on 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 becoming unaffordable

"We depend on our son's salary for our family. 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 the Khashman neighborhood and has been chairman of the local district council for several months. Many Khashman residents are desperate because their fields have completely dried up, Abdo says. 

"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 want to fight, they should do it on the frontlines, but not use water as a weapon," he said. "This is not life. They are killing us — just slowly."

This article was originally written in German. Translated by: Johanna Thompson 

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