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