Arab worldConflict and climate change drive Syria's water crisis
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 grey earth. "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 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 kilometres 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.
Since 2020, the water level in the Syrian reservoir has dropped by six metres. 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 being exacerbated 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 regional level to find a solution as soon as possible."
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 metres per second of Euphrates water to pass through to Syria. But this summer that dwindled to 215 cubic metres 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, 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.
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 analyse further why water levels are so low." The Turkish Foreign Ministry did not reply to several requests for comment.
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 of diseases such as diarrhoea, 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.