Water scarcity reaches crisis point in northern Syria

Climate change-induced water shortages in northern Syria are exacerbating existing vulnerabilities caused by economic instability, conflict, and the pandemic.

A Syrian girl fetches water from a tank in the al-Hol displacement camp in northeast Syria [Courtesy: Save the Children]

For 71 of his 81 years, Abu Mohammad Sheikh Hussein has been farming the land in northeast Syria. These last two years have seen some of the lowest water levels in his living memory, he said.

“Before, whoever lived far from the river could dig for groundwater, and they used to find water. But now no matter how deep they dig, they can’t find any source of water.”

Having lost access to groundwater sources, Sheikh Hussein explained that he and others in the area are now depending solely on the Euphrates river, which is near his home.

However, the river has also been dwindling to “critically low” levels this year, according to a report by the World Food Programme.

More than five million people depend on Syria’s longest river for their water source and livelihoods, with the electricity produced by the hydroelectric dams on the river supplying about three million people.

Sheikh Hussein stated that, because of the low water levels in the dams, he and his family are currently only receiving about two hours of electricity a day.

A combination of rising temperatures and decreased levels of precipitation have led to the reduced water levels in the Euphrates.

Another factor perceived locally to be affecting the water levels is the numerous dam projects upstream in Turkey, part of a decades-long development project to build 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

‘Another layer of suffering’

According to a project manager working for Mercy Corps in northeast Syria, who asked to remain anonymous because of security reasons, Tishreen dam, one of the two main dams on the Euphrates, is 47 centimetres away from reaching “dead level”.

He explained that each day, the water level drops by a centimetre, meaning the dam is 47 days away from going out of service.

“The cost of bringing [the dam] back into service will be massive,” he said. “As the turbines stop totally, the existing water will flood all the electricity equipment. And due to the conflict … there is no Plan B, and there are no diesel generators to discharge the water from the tunnels to protect the electricity or electrical equipment.”

With fuel prices almost tripling this year in Syria, water has also become much more expensive to pump. Mercy Corp’s project manager said this has “led to an increase in the cost of the agricultural operation, and ultimately [increased] the price of crops and goods such as bread”.

He added that, because of the water crisis, many people now “depend on the stagnant water in the irrigation canals”, which has “led to the spread of waterborne illnesses such as diarrhoea and intestinal infection”.

As well as illness, he stated that collecting water from the canals can be risky. “There were seven cases [in summer 2021] of people drowning in these irrigation canals when they were trying to get water. All those people are women and children.”

After 10 years of conflict, the project manager explained that water scarcity is adding “another layer to the people’s suffering in the region”.

This comes following a report from 13 organisations in the region, warning that urgent action is needed to combat the severe water crisis.

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow comes to an end on Friday, the project manager said he hopes the international community will invest more in sustainable programmes and alleviate the suffering caused by a combination of climate change, economic instability, conflict, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unaffordable water

In contrast, northeast Syria, where the main water source is the Euphrates river, northwest Syria’s main water sources are ground wells and springs. The rebel-controlled area in the northwest of the country has seen continued attacks, often backed by Russia, compared with the relative calm of the Kurdish-controlled northeast.

Jamal al-Ali, a former engineer’s assistant who fled to Idlib province from Damascus during the conflict, told Al Jazeera that electricity and water supply in his area is intermittent and expensive. Some of the infrastructure is reportedly being provided by the Turkish government, with private companies supplying the rest.

“We get water from privately owned wells,” he said, explaining 20 litres costs $60, an amount unaffordable for many, and exacerbated by the significant depreciation of the Syrian pound. “For drinking water, we buy filtered water from the markets.”

He also explained the only electricity supply they currently have comes from solar panels installed on the roof of their house, a common sight in the area.

“We have solar power panels with batteries just to power LED light bulbs,” said al-Ali. “The batteries are very expensive to buy, so we don’t have electricity strong enough to make a fridge or a TV work.

“Thank god water is provided. If there is money, there is water. If there is no money, there is no water,” he said.

Dire consequences for the future

Engineer Jamal Diban, the head of the general directorate of drinking water in Idlib, said water is pumped from underground wells and from springs in the area and is available “in most cities in the region”.

However, he added this drains the water supply and “requires a high cost to extract”.

Diban added the pumping stations are in need of rehabilitation, and the Public Establishment for Drinking Water “calls upon humanitarian organisations to help rehabilitate these stations”.

With air raids still ongoing in parts of northwest Syria, the conflict has and continues to affect infrastructure. “The bombing … keeps happening every once in a while,” said al-Ali.

According to Khaldoon A Mourad, a senior researcher in integrated water resources management from Syria, now residing in Sweden, “the conflict has damaged most of the infrastructure in some Syrian cities, and that [has] affected water quality and quantity”.

Mourad added a lack of funds and an unstable security situation are hampering rehabilitation efforts.

While some agreements do exist regarding transboundary water issues, Mourad emphasised that stakeholders and decision-makers in the region must “cooperate to find possible regional solutions regarding water scarcity”.

Mercy Corps’ project manager emphasised: “If the water level did not increase in the Euphrates, we will have a big crisis regarding the electricity and the infrastructure here in northeast Syria”.

When asked if there is hope for the future of water in Syria, al-Ali shook his head. “I don’t think there is a solution. It’s impossible.”

Source: Al Jazeera