Water crisis and drought threaten 12 million in Syria, Iraq

The unfolding water crisis will soon become an ‘unprecedented catastrophe’ across Syria and Iraq, NGOs say.

MKore than five million people in Syria who directly depend on river water were directly impacted by the growing water crisis [File: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

More than 12 million people in Syria and Iraq are losing access to water, food and electricity, 13 aid groups warned in a report as they called for urgent action to combat the severe water crisis.

Rising temperatures, record low levels of rainfall, and drought are depriving people across the region of drinking and agricultural water, said the report, published on Monday. Syria is currently facing its worst drought in 70 years.

Compiled by a group of international organisations, including the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, CARE,  Action Against Hunger, and Mercy Corps, among others, the report warned higher temperatures caused by climate change increased the risks and severity of droughts in the region.

The changes in the climate also disrupted electricity as dams ran out of water, which in turn impacted the operation of essential infrastructure including health facilities, they said.

“The total collapse of water and food production for millions of Syrians and Iraqis is imminent,” said Carsten Hansen, regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“With hundreds of thousands of Iraqis still displaced and many more still fleeing for their lives in Syria, the unfolding water crisis will soon become an unprecedented catastrophe pushing more into displacement,” he added.

‘Act swiftly to save lives’

CARE’s regional director in the Middle East and North Africa, Nirvana Shawky, said the severity of the situation had been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The situation demands that authorities in the region and donor governments act swiftly to save lives in this latest crisis that comes on top of conflict, COVID-19, and severe economic decline,” said Shawky. “In the longer term, beyond emergency food and water, they need to invest in sustainable solutions to the water crisis.”

Since autumn 2020, unseasonably low levels of rainfall across the eastern Mediterranean basin have contributed to drought conditions in Syria and Iraq, according to a UN report in June.

The water crisis was compounded by progressively decreasing water flows into the Euphrates River – which runs through both countries from Turkey – over months, falling from 500 cubic metres per second in January to 214 cubic metres per second in June 2020, said the UN.

Five million at risk in Syria

According to the report, more than five million people in Syria who depend on river water were directly impacted by the burgeoning water crisis as hundreds of kilometres of agricultural land risked total drought.

At the same time, with two dams in northern Syria facing imminent closure, about three million people risked losing access to electricity.

Since the reduction in water levels, communities in several areas across Syria, including Hassakeh, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Az Zor, have witnessed a rise in outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea.

In Al Sebat, 30km (13 miles) away from Hassakeh, residents have seen scores of villagers leaving to other areas because of drought.

“This year we have witnessed a wave of intense drought and as a result, our lands did not produce any crops and we don’t have any sources of drinkable water either for us or for our animals,” said Abdallah, a tribal leader from Al Sebat.

“It is infuriating to think that the current conditions will force us to leave the rural areas and that our lands will be left as ruins.”

Syria ranks seventh on a global risk index of 191 countries most at risk of a humanitarian or natural disaster, in part because of the ongoing crisis.

Seven million affected in Iraq

In Iraq, large swathes of farmland, fisheries, power production and drinking water sources have been depleted, threatening the lives of at least seven million people, said the report.

In the Nineveh governorate, wheat production is expected to decline by 70 percent because of the drought, while in the Kurdish region of Iraq production is expected to decrease by half, it said.

Some families in Anbar province who have no access to river water are spending up to $80 a month on water, an unaffordable sum for most families.

Iraq, which depends on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for nearly all its water, has been frequently at odds over water issues.

‘Crisis to get worse’

The Danish Refugee Council’s Middle East Regional Director Gerry Garvey warned the water crisis was “bound to get worse” threatening to further destabilise the region.

“It is likely to increase conflict. There is no time to waste. We must find sustainable solutions that would guarantee water and food today and for future generations,” said Garvey.

With temperatures in the Mediterranean basin predicted to increase in the coming years, and water scarcity expected to persist, the UN has warned extreme climatic events such as drought are likely to “become more frequent and intense”, it said in its June report.

Source: Al Jazeera