Hello…Taliban…can you hear us?

Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), during a meeting in Kabul with the Taliban leadership

This article is the second part of the previous editorial “The Afghanistan of the Taliban and Us“. The latter highlighted some of the reasons for Western failure in that country, sanctioned by the Taliban’s victory.

This editorial also invited us to anticipate the challenges common to the Afghanistan of the Taliban as well as to the community of Nation States at the UN: humanitarian and economic challenges, human rights and representativeness challenges, terrorism challenges, drug challenges and geopolitical challenges.

Today, it is a question of challenging the Taliban. What do you really want? Your representative in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, recently said “Nobody has an interest in weakening Afghanistan”. But would it be in the Taliban’s interest to isolate themselves, both in the Afghan diversity and on the international scene?

Until recently, three-quarters of the previous Afghan government’s resources came from international aid. This aid has abruptly stopped with the freezing of assets and the interruption of all development aid in a poor country affected by drought and the consequences of a conflict lasting more than 40 years! How do the Taliban intend to deal with this major crisis and assume politically the responsibilities they have taken up by arms?

Afghanistan on the slope of economic collapse and humanitarian catastrophe.

Afghanistan is engaged on the slope of an announced economic collapse and a humanitarian catastrophe which threatens to the point that it seems indecent to speak about this country while forgetting this drama which affects all the population and particularly, according to the United Nations, 18 million men, women and children, families, who do not eat enough and who are threatened with famine whereas the always rigorous winter approaches.

A family eats a meal at their home in Mazar, Afghanistan, September 15, 2021. The World Food Program is helping displaced people and vulnerable families with food and cash. @WFP/Arete

The health system is on the verge of collapse. Already 2,000 health facilities have closed due to lack of salaries for 23,000 health workers, including 7,000 women, according to Alexander Matheou of the IFRC.

According to Richard Trenchaut of the FAO, the drought threatens the livelihoods of 7 million farmers and herders who are the backbone of the country’s economy. Seed distribution is urgently needed in October to enable the harvest of winter wheat.

According to the WFP and UNICEF, the situation of children is especially critical for half of the under-five children, that is to say 3.2 million girls and boys who are at risk of becoming rapidly victims of severe malnutrition.

Thus, during the recent meeting in Doha between the Taliban, the United States, the European Union and several member states including France, Great Britain and Germany, Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced an aid of 1 billion euros to “avoid a humanitarian disaster” and “a collapse of basic services”. France, through the voice of Jean-Yves Le Drian, had already announced an aid of 100 million euros on September 13. This is good because humanitarian aid is never negotiable in the name of humanity.

However, the Taliban in power must allow and facilitate access to this aid over the long term throughout the country, without restriction, and must ensure its security while respecting humanitarian principles, including the impartiality of aid and the freedom to assess, provide assistance and report on it.

All humanitarian aid involves assessments with populations to help the most vulnerable first. @Solidarités International

The Taliban should make clear official commitments on this issue and make them known. The humanitarian and economic crisis could result in the forced exile of countless Afghans.

Development assistance will certainly be subject to political considerations and the existence of competent public services. In the meantime, I would suggest an immediate and large-scale expansion of humanitarian programs such as the Emergency Development Nexus, which would provide massive support for agriculture, livestock, and basic services in all areas throughout the country.

The cornerstone of human rights and representation.

To counter the women’s demonstrations in Kabul, the Taliban had the idea of organizing a parody of a counter-demonstration of Taliban women in an amphitheater where they were all dressed in the same sinister gray burqa as a uniform. As an Afghan friend told me, this type of women’s clothing had never been seen before in Afghanistan. It was a sinister and disturbing comedy.

Here’s a question for the Taliban. In your country, aren’t the women Afghan, Muslim, mothers of your children. Haven’t women also suffered the devastating effects of war for more than 40 years, multiple deprivations while feeding numerous children. Many of them have lost their husbands in the war and have had to face adversity.

They are entitled to respect and consideration. And Afghanistan has a great need for women to care for women especially. Afghanistan has a great need for them to educate girls in order to participate actively in the indispensable development of a country among the poorest in the world.

The Taliban have made many declarations and promises that must now be kept in order to be credible. Let us also be realistic. In a predominantly rural country, the work of women, as well as men, is primarily in the fields to produce the daily bread.

Finally, despite the deep divisions inherent in the war, the Taliban want to seek national unity and therefore ensure that diversity, especially ethnic diversity, is represented. Is this not the condition for a lasting civil peace?

The war against terrorism and against drugs.

The attacks of Daech or Islamic State in Khorassan on August 30 at Kabul airport, then on October 8 in Kunduz and on October 15 in Kandahar against Shiite mosques at prayer time call into question the ability of the Taliban to keep their main promise, that of security. Other attacks could still take place.

Afghanistan, Suicide bombers attack claimed by Daech against the Shiite Fatemieh mosque in Kandahar at prayer time on October 15 killing more than 40 people and injuring 70. @UPI / Alamy Image Bank

While the Taliban are fighting Daech in Afghanistan, there does not seem to be a strong and unequivocal condemnation of this terrorism that has already killed 600 Afghans. If the experts consider that the Taliban never had an international terrorist agenda, this asserted position would have a strong impact, so why wait? Similarly, the neutralization of Al-Qaeda, which caused Afghanistan’s misfortune after the destruction of the World Trade Center, is a matter of simple political realism and the country’s interest.

In 2020, opium production was 6300 tons in Afghanistan. @Davrik

A declaration of the decision to eradicate poppy, opium and heroin production through a broad program of international support for alternative crops would have a real impact. It could reflect the intention, despite the difficulties, to establish a virtuous, representative, accountable and credible state.

Preliminary conclusion.

What do the Taliban want? What can the Taliban do? It certainly takes time in this country, but it is from the beginning that a direction is given and decides for many the future.

The 6 challenges are there to illustrate the responsibilities of the Taliban:

  • Facilitate access and security for humanitarian relief wherever it is urgently needed in the country and support agriculture and livestock and essential public services.
  • Re-establish an administration capable of dealing with the economic crisis with competent and honest managers and experts.
  • Mobilize women, especially for health, education, the humanitarian and economic crisis and implement a policy of national reconciliation.
  • Unequivocally condemn and fight against terrorism.
  • Engage in poppy eradication and mobilize alternative production with international assistance.
  • Not to isolate itself geopolitically and, why not, to become once again a “free, neutral and non-aligned” country, an independent and stable buffer state for its neighbors.
Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN.

Let us conclude by quoting UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres: “The world will pay a heavy price if it does not help Afghans overcome this crisis. Without food, without jobs, without protection of their rights, we will see more and more Afghans fleeing their homes in search of a better life. The flow of illegal drugs, criminal and terrorist networks will also likely increase. This will not only seriously affect Afghanistan, but also the region and the rest of the world.

 

Alain Boinet.

Syria’s thirsty northeast

Since June 2021, Turkey has reduced the amount of water in the Euphrates for Syria from 500 m3 second to 214m3 by holding this water in its upstream dams.

We drive at a slow pace on the floating bridge over the Tigris River to enter Syria from Iraq. The Turkish border is close. Faysh Khabur is the only crossing point to enter this northeastern Syrian region, which is now landlocked between Turkey and the territory controlled to the west by the Syrian authorities in Damascus.

This region located between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers is under the control of the Syrian Democratic Council led by the Kurds with Arabs and representatives of what remains here of the Syriac and Armenian Christians driven out of their lands as well as many Kurds. This territory has been the scene of bitter and deadly fighting by Kurdish forces against the jihadists of Daech, from the battle of Kobane to that of Raqqa with the support of the International Coalition including France, the United States and Great Britain.

Raqqua, as in Kobane, a destructive, building-by-building war that Kurdish fighters, women and men, won against Daech at the cost of heavy losses. @Mahmoud Bali

I am traveling in good company with Bernard Kouchner, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patrice Franceschi, a committed writer who has just published a novel about the Kurdish women fighters, the Yapajas, and Gérard Chaliand, a geostrategist, all three of whom have been in this region for many years. With them, I am here as a humanitarian specialist in water.

We have been invited by the North-East Syrian Self-Administration (AANES) to participate in an “International Forum for Water in North-East Syria” which is being held in the city of Hassakeh on September 27 and 28. For this region of the North-East is today at the center of a triple water crisis that seriously disrupts and threatens the daily life of its inhabitants and populations forcibly displaced by the fighting that has been taking place in Syria for more than 10 years now.

Along the road to Amuda, abandoned buildings under construction. @Alain Boinet

Here, the earth is uniformly flat. The protective mountains are on the other side, in Kurdistan of Iraq. Along the road, we discover a ghost town with its alignments of unfinished, empty, abandoned buildings. Farther on, small oil wells appear, like tumbleweeds that supply the local fuel. Here and there, in the plain, flocks of sheep, one of the rare resources of the region.

In the car, throughout the hours, discussions are going well on the imbroglio which reigns here, on the fate of the populations and their very uncertain future but with the hope pegged to the body. On the road, one regularly crosses Russian or American military convoys and the Turks are not far. Half a day’s drive later, we reach our destination, the town of Amuda, where the Auto Administration receives us in a house for passing guests.

International Forum for Water in North-East Syria.

The next day, the welcome is warm in Hassakeh in the hall of the vast amphitheater where the Forum takes place. The program is dense and rich with 23 speakers, mainly Kurdish, Arab, with guests from Iraq, France, Austria, Great Britain or South Africa. Representatives of international humanitarian NGOs active in the region are also there.

Opening speech by Bernard Kouchner of the International Water Forum in Northeast Syria.

In his opening speech, Bernard Kouchner, a guest of honor well known to the Kurds, insisted on the risks that Turkey poses to the populations by cutting off or limiting the volume of water essential to daily life and he saluted with great conviction the action of local and international NGOs.

For Patrice Franceschi who succeeded him, this deliberate rarefaction of available water is a “silent” war that aims to weaken the populations and this is an eminently political and diplomatic issue.

Gérard Chaliand, will conclude that despite the errors and uncertainties “no one can force you not to be what you are“. It is the whole question of the right of peoples to self-determination that he reminds us of.

At the podium, experts will succeed to specialists to show, evaluate, analyze the consequences of the drought that affects the whole region, the cut of the drinking water station of Ah Houq and the drastic reduction of the water level of the Euphrates whose source is in Turkey which retains it upstream in a large number of dams.

By way of introduction, a speaker recalled the treaties and agreements signed between Turkey, Syria and Iraq and still relevant. All disciplines are present in this Forum to deal with the subject of water: international law, political science, economics, environment, agriculture, biotechnology, geography, architecture, geology, research, humanitarian. Listening to them express themselves and debate, one discovers the high level of training and competence that exists and that remains involved in the face of the serious difficulties that the populations are confronted with in their daily lives and that lead some to take the uncertain path of exile against their will.

I am personally invited as a water specialist and administrator of several organizations, coordination and think tank dedicated to water and sanitation, to emergency and reconstruction situations as well as to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030) which foresee in its Goal 6 a universal access to drinking water for all in the world. It is in this capacity that I am taking the floor at the Forum to remind you of what we all know: water is life, it is a global public good, and that rationing, if not deliberately cutting off water to populations in order to wage war, is contrary to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which applies to all in conflicts.

Alain Boinet in front of the Forum entrance with participants. @Alain Boinet

At the end of the morning, we take our meals all together in a large room around common tables. It is there, around a dish, that I meet the members of the Forum of NGOs in North-East Syria and other representatives of NGOs from Baghdad and mobilized on the defense of the Tigris River which, coming from Turkey, serves Iraq where it joins the Euphrates to form a common estuary, the Shatt-el-Arab, 200 km long, which opens into the Persian Gulf.

Then, it’s time for “tchaï”, tea and “Cawa”, coffee, under a big tent which protects us from a burning sun which overhangs us in the blue sky. It is also the time of reunion when old friends and acquaintances meet with Bernard Kouchner. Hugs and memories follow. I myself am surprised to be approached by three young people, one man and two women, who want to take a selfie. They say: “Okay, but first tell me how you know me“. “We saw you on the screen of the Forum and we recognized you”. After the pictures, in the discussion, I discover that they work for the coordination of humanitarian INGOs for water, sanitation and hygiene.

I cannot summarize so many interventions and debates during these two days of Forum in Hassakeh because of the diversity and density of the remarks as well as the videos illustrating the subject as close to reality as possible. However, I must now present the why and how of this triple water crisis that is slowly thirsting the population and agriculture.

The triple water crisis in Northeast Syria (NES)

For a long time, as a humanitarian activist for access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all in the world, I had many opportunities to intervene for access to water in Afghanistan, DRC, Mali, Lebanon and elsewhere and to publish and advocate for the cause of water in Geneva, Istanbul, Marseille, Daegu, Paris or Dakar and, today, in North-East Syria.

The information presented here, the figures in particular, are based on information from the AANES and, for the most part, from the NES Forum, which brings together and coordinates the humanitarian action of 14 INGOs in 16 different fields, from water to health, from food security to energy, and including education. It should be remembered that the UN agencies and the ICRC do not have the authorization of the Damascus authorities to intervene in the NES, with the exception of a few government enclaves and IDP camps.

To return to the triple water crisis, it stems from the combination of a severe drought throughout the region in 2020-2021, the cutting off of drinking water from the Al Houq station, and the sharp decline in the water level in the Euphrates.

The water crisis of drought. In 2020-2021, rainfall decreased by 50-70% in the entire region according to FAO. Specifically, AANES calculates that the decrease is more than 75% for rainfed crops and 10-25% for irrigated crops. There are two seasons in Syria for harvesting, the winter season from November to May and the summer season from June to September. The drought and the sharp decrease in water in the Euphrates River are causing an increase in food insecurity as the NES produces 80% of wheat and barley in Syria. Thus, this year, barley production has dropped from 2.2 million tons to 450,000 tons!

 

Map showing the location of the Hal Houq drinking water station located in Turkish occupied Syrian territory.

The crisis of the Hal Houq drinking water station. This station is located in Syria on a territory between Ras-al-Ain and Tel Abiad, which for a length of 100 km and a width of 30 km was annexed by Turkey after a two-month military offensive launched on October 9, 2019. Since then, the Kurdish populations originally from this area have fled and are now living in IDP camps. They have been replaced by Syrian Arab populations who were refugees in Turkey as well as many jihadists.

This station is therefore under the control of the Turkish authorities who since October 2019 operate regular water cuts. Since the summer of 2021 the water cut is total. However, this station is the only one that can supply the populations of Hassakeh and the surrounding villages as well as the four camps of displaced persons. This represents 460,000 inhabitants and 99,000 displaced persons.

Distribution of drinking water by tanker by humanitarian organizations.

This is where several international humanitarian INGOs had to intervene urgently with water trucks, or “water trucking”, to continuously supply the IDP camps, the informal reception centers and the inhabitants. Local private companies are also drilling into groundwater and selling the water to residents.

The Euphrates River water crisis.

Coming from Turkey where it has its source, the Euphrates River crosses Syria from North to South and then enters Iraq where it joins the Tigris and then the Persian Gulf. In agreements signed in 1987 and still in force, Turkey undertook to supply 500 m3 of water per second to Damascus. For its part, in 1989, Syria signed a bilateral agreement with Iraq providing that 52% of the waters of the Euphrates would return to Baghdad.

However, since June this year, the amount of water entering Syria has fallen to 214 m3 per second, a sudden drop of 60% with many consequences for the people of the region, both in the northeast and in the western part of the river under the control of the Syrian government in Damascus. Thus, 54 of the 73 water abstraction stations located in the west have seen their capacities greatly reduced, as well as 44 of the 126 stations located on the eastern bank of the NES, impacting 38 communities, camps and collective and informal reception centers for displaced people.

Current water level compared to the usual level at Tishreen Dam.

This has had immediate consequences for the population. For example, the Tishreen hydroelectric dam, the first dam on the Euphrates River in Syria, can now only use 2 of its 6 turbines producing 5 to 6 hours of electricity per day (February 2021) instead of 12 to 14 hours (June 2021). We can see the consequences for families, hospitals, public services, stores and farms! A little further down, the Tabqa dam is at 20% of its normal level, very close as in Tishreen to the “dead level” below which the turbines would be irreparably damaged.

Very low water level at Al-Suwah station in Deir-Ez-Zohr in southern Syria

At the water stations along the river, this decrease in water level reduces the water available for family consumption as well as for crop irrigation. Finally, the chemical and bacteriological concentration of water from sewage and agricultural and industrial waste is causing an increase in water-borne diseases, particularly diarrhea, which is increasing infant mortality in the absence of anti-diarrheal medication. Not to mention the alarming increase in cases of malnutrition among young children.

The consequences are striking according to international humanitarian organizations:

  • 5.5 million people are at risk due to lack of drinking water in the NES and Aleppo governorate.
  • 3 million people are affected by the reduction of electrical power.
  • 5 million people are affected by reduced food livelihoods.

 

Conclusion.

The conclusion of this Forum attended by more than 150 experts ended in a studious and cordial atmosphere.

Gérard Chaliand with participants at the end of the International Water Forum in Northeast Syria.

In this triple water crisis, we must distinguish between the drought that affects all the countries in the region, including Turkey, and the use of the Al Houq station and the water of the Euphrates as a means of pressure on the populations and the NES authorities.

Turkey is actively pursuing the development of its huge project (GAP) to build 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants upstream of Syria and Iraq and can at any time reduce or cut off their water!

The humanitarian consequences are immediate in the NES for 2.6 million inhabitants and displaced persons, according to humanitarian organizations, of which 1.8 million require humanitarian aid while several factors of vulnerability (severe restriction of drinking water and for agriculture, decrease in agricultural production, water-borne diseases, increase in prices) combine for the worst. For example, the self-administration indicates that 72% of farmers are suffering from reduced wheat harvests and stocks are at a dangerously low level before winter.

In the immediate future, the first emergency is humanitarian. The NES Forum and its 14 INGOs are doing a tremendous amount of work, but according to their assessment, there is a shortfall of US$215 million to meet basic needs, of which US$122 million is needed now, both for immediate needs and to expand wheat production for the next season.

Statement on social networks of Bernard Kouchner received by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the self-government, Mr. Abdul Karim Omar.

In terms of hydro-diplomacy, it is necessary to return to the international reference framework Conventions: the Helsinki Convention of 1992 and the New York Convention of 1997. These refer to the “equitable and reasonable use” of water between riparian countries as well as the “obligation not to cause damage to the use of other States“.

In this perspective, the Al Houq station must open the drinking water valves again and the station should be accessible to the United Nations and the ICRC in particular. On the other hand, in accordance with its commitments, Turkey must again deliver 500 m3 of water per second into the Euphrates for the populations in Syria and Iraq.

On the way back to Paris, if I am sure that the humanitarians as well as the NES self-administration will do everything they can for the populations in danger, for the most part it is now up to the hydro-diplomacy to act to avoid the worst if this situation were to last.

 

Alain Boinet back from North East Syria.