The return of President Assad to the warm embrace of the Arab states reinforces the misconception that a rough stability is now in place. The country is neatly divided in three between territory controlled by Assad, the rebel enclave of Idlib in the northwest and the region east of the Euphrates that falls under the control of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. While it is true that fighting has declined markedly, what challenges this picture of a stabilized situation is the water crisis. Climate change has created the crisis, while destruction of crucial infrastructure and systems of regulatory oversight in the war has exacerbated it.
The most obvious sign — the canary in the coal shaft — was the large spike in cholera numbers. This is the result of people throughout Syria being left with no alternative but to drink contaminated water. First reported last year, a coordinated effort by international NGOs and the three administrations that now control the fractured country has seen the crisis somewhat contained, but the underlying issue of contaminated water remains unresolved.
How did Syria’s water crisis begin?
Prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2011, Syria’s water supply had already been dented by prolonged drought. Indeed some analysts argue that the drought of 2005–2010 was a driver of the war. It was the worst recorded in 900 years and caused a mass population drift from rural areas to larger cities.
Even so, as the Century Foundation’s Aron Lund notes in a paper published earlier this year:
Before the war, 98 percent of Syrian city dwellers and 92 percent of people in rural regions had reliable access to clean water. But Syria’s drinking water supply fell by 40 percent in the war’s first decade, and half of all water and sanitation systems no longer function properly.
With the war having displaced nearly 7 million Syrians internally, the destruction of water and sanitation infrastructure — much of it deliberately carried out on rebel-held areas by Assad’s forces and his Russian allies — has taken the crisis into a landscape that resembles a dystopian nightmare. People no longer have enough water for basic hygiene and sanitation practices that work to contain and control the spread of disease.
A study released by the US-government funded National Center for Biotechnology Information in June comments:
According to the United Nations (UN), more than two-thirds of water treatment plants in Syria have either been damaged or destroyed during the war since 2011 … the current conflict, as well as ongoing military pressure on civilians, have resulted in the massive migration of millions of people into overcrowded, unsanitary, and filthy shelters with insufficient access to clean water.
The study notes that the source of much of the country’s water is supplied by the heavily polluted Euphrates River. In addition to the pumping of raw sewage into the river, oil spillages have increasingly polluted the Euphrates. The pollution only serves to exacerbate a situation which over the past several years has witnessed an alarming drop in the river’s levels. In addition to drinking water, the Euphrates supplies water for 85% of Syria’s agriculture. The levels are now at their lowest point in recorded history.
Western efforts to ease the crisis have backfired
As water scarcity increases, so too does pressure on existing aquifers. Ironically, Western aid organizations have contributed to the water crisis in attempting to alleviate food insecurity. Aid has focussed on encouraging the growing of irrigation-intensive crops. However, using the polluted waters of the Euphrates has further stressed water supply and additionally contributed to the cholera outbreak as people eat food contaminated by the dirty water.
Solar panels were seen as a blessing for farmers bedeviled by electricity outages and the high cost of diesel to run generators to pump water. The panels are easy to install; the energy they produce is free, and they are efficient — too efficient, as farmers who had been limited in what they could pump previously are now pumping 24/7. This further drains stressed aquifers.
In Kurdish-run northeastern Syria, there is reportedly no oversight, either from Western aid organizations or the regional administration, on bore drillings. Neither are there any data on how much water is being extracted. A Western aid worker quoted in the paper “Sowing like there’s no tomorrow,” published by Synaps, observes that “most organizations don’t do feasibility studies. Such studies would take time, which isn’t easily accounted for in funding cycles. Simply put, they are drilling blind.”
Clearly, too, water is weaponized even though much of the fighting has abated. One example is the Allouk pumping station in Hassakeh governorate, in northeastern Syria. Turkey seized the station in 2019. The governorate is severely water-stressed, and the Turks are, according to the Kurdish authorities, regularly suspending water flow. The paper notes:
Turkey and its Syrian proxies have used their control of the Allouk pumping station to disrupt water supplies to what the UN estimates are up to one million people. But climate and geography play a role, too: Unlike Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, Hassakeh’s fields lie far from the Euphrates, which enables irrigated agriculture. And the Khabur river, once a key resource for Hassakeh’s farmers, has been worn down by decades of over-exploitation made worse by hotter, drier weather.
As the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai draws closer, and with Assad in attendance, there may be some grounds for optimism that Syria’s water crisis will receive the attention it desperately needs. Weighing against the optimism are the ongoing challenges of climate change in a country that remains utterly fractured by more than a decade of civil war. The president, now reaffirmed by the Arab world, is less concerned with fixing these problems than with self-preservation and the accumulation of wealth for himself and his family.
[Arab Digest first published this piece.]
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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