Drought is rapidly drying up the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, risking access to water for more than 12 million people in Syria and Iraq.
Yassin, a 55-year-old farmer from rural Hasakah in north-eastern Syria, the country’s food basket, was financially shaken when a creeping disaster of drought hit his land this year.
He usually grew wheat and barley but this year failed to produce harvests to cover household needs, forcing him and other villagers to seek alternate solutions such as buying mobile water tanks.
“Our biggest problem is water. Humans, animals, and land – we all depend on water to live,” Yassin told Norwegian Refugee Council, summarising the crisis he and other civilians are dealing with.
For this reason, experts are calling the ongoing drought “a creeping disaster,” a kind of calamity that feeds into a chain of destruction with far-reaching consequences. In Yassin’s case, it means being unable to feed his animals and maybe at some point hunger pangs for his family, too.
“If one of our chicks dies, we declare it as a disaster, if a baby sheep gets sick you will hear its owner moaning,” Yassin explained the impact of drought.
Around 12 million people in Syria and Iraq are directly suffering from the consequences of water scarcity, 13 aid groups warned on Monday.
“This water crisis is bound to get worse. It is likely to increase conflict in an already destabilized region,” the Danish Refugee Council’s Middle East Regional Director Gerry Garvey said.
“There is no time to waste. We must find sustainable solutions that would guarantee water and food today and for future generations.”
But why are Syria and Iraq caught up to such a disaster?
Lowest rainfall for the past years
The drought in both countries has been the most severe in the past years.
Syria only received 50 to 70 percent of the normal levels of rainfalls for the past two years, threatening 5 million people. Civilians, both in Syria and Iraq, are directly dependent on the Euphrates, the largest river in Syria.
The river is generated in southeast Turkey and is the main source of clean drinking water as well as hydroelectric power producing electricity for around three million people in Syria. Two critical dams in the region, Tishreen and Tabqa dams, reached historically low levels as the water levels shrank as never before. Both dams face imminent closure.
Power shortages, consequently mean having no air conditioning amid temperatures reaching as high as 52C (125F) and having to make an impossible choice between using water for hygiene or drinking it.
Communities already affected by the war in Syria are particularly vulnerable. People who live in Hasakah, Aleppo, Raqqa, and Deir ez Zour, including people living in camps for displaced people, have already witnessed a rise in outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as diarrhea as a result of lack of water, NRC said.
Iraq’s case is no different. Waters of the Turkey-descended Euphrates and Tigris are only joining in the Persian Gulf after coursing through Syria -- meaning it’s already being cut by the dams in previous stops.
As a result of combined factors, large swathes of farmland, fisheries, power production and drinking water sources in Iraq have been depleted of water.
Water rates from both rivers are half what they were last year, according to Iraq’s Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rasheed al Hamdani.
Turkey too, meanwhile, suffered severe water shortages as the country’s largest reservoirs quickly became depleted at the end of last year, NRC stated.
Years of conflict and mismanagement
Both countries have long suffered from poor water management policies amid conflict and war.
In Iraq, years-long protests particularly sparked in summers for years have turned into an uprising in October 2019. Civilians protesting lack of services including water and electricity puts the blame on the political elite in the country who have been accused of rampant corruption.
Syria, on the other hand, is divided between managements. The US-backed YPG, PKK’s Syrian affiliate, rules much of northeastern Syria that includes towns suffering from water scarcity. PKK has been recognised as a terror group by Turkey, the US and EU.
The Syrian regime, meanwhile, controls more than 60 percent of the country, while a large patch of territory in the country’s northwest is controlled by rebels.
The Assad family, current regime leader Bashar al Assad and previously his father Hafez al Assad, have used water as a grand bargain tool since the 70s, Washington Institute’s Samuel Northrup said in a 2017 piece.
“The regime uses water to buy and maintain loyalty, intimidate opponents, and fracture insurgencies, all in an effort to suppress and control the populace,” Northrup said.
Civilians in Syria’s Daraa, a town besieged by the Syrian government, are currently deprived of water as well as other basic necessities as the country is experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis.
Lebanon, a country also mired in an economic crisis that experts call the worst ever in its modern history, is also in danger of losing critical access to water as its water supply system is on the verge of collapse in Lebanon.
Carsten Hansen, regional director for the NRC, one of the aid groups behind the warning, said that for 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.”