A humanitarian crisis is likely as the “fertile crescent” becomes arid

In northeastern Syria, the Euphrates’ water level is so low that five million people risk being left without drinking water.

“It’s like being in the desert,” says Khaled al-Khamees, standing on parched ground in a place where, last year, the Euphrates River flowed through Syria. The 50-year-old farmer told French agency AFP that he and his family are thinking of leaving because there’s no more water. The river used to provide water for his olive grove, which is now scorched.

There was a time when the strip of land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in the Middle East, was so lush as to earn itself the nickname of “fertile crescent”. Now, however, desertification is advancing, putting whole communities in danger.

Humanitarian organisations fear an imminent catastrophe in northeastern Syria, where the Euphrates’ flow rate has been raising concerns since January. This situation threatens to hinder the functioning of two of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the region, located at Tishrin and Tabqa, drastically reducing the already-lacking supply of electricity and clean water.

taqba dam, syria
Taqba dam © Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

No more water or electricity

“I have never witnessed such a situation since the dam was completed in 1999,” says Tishrin’s director Hammoud al-Hadiyyen. Since the start of 2021, water levels have fallen by five metres. Just a few more centimetres and the turbines will stop producing electricity.

In all of northeastern Syria, electrical production has already fallen by 70 per cent compared to last year, states Welat Darwish, the head of the energy authority. These power stations provide energy to the homes of some three million citizens. They also ensure access to drinking water to five million people who, to avoid dying of thirst, risk contracting illnesses from alternative, contaminated water sources.

lake assad, syria
Lake Assad is now basically dry © Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

Water as a weapon of war

The Euphrates, which is 2,800 kilometres long, flows from Turkey into Syria and Iraq. Some Kurdish-Syrian organisations have accused the Turkish government of exploiting water as a weapon of war, intentionally diminishing the flow into regions of Syria under Kurdish control. In fact, a decrease in the amount of water that Turkey is legally required to let flow from its borders into Syria – based on an agreement signed in 1987 – has been recorded over the past few months. The amount fell from 500 to 200 cubic metres per second.

euphrates, iraq
Children playing along the banks of the Euphrates. Chibayish, Iraq  © Arianna Pagani

Climate change fuels the drought

A Turkish diplomatic source told AFP that the government never reduced the amount of water leaving the country. “Our region is facing one of the worst drought periods due to climate change,” they added. Rainfall this limited had not been seen in southern Turkey for at least thirty years. Syrian analyst Fabrice Balanche, however, fears that this is not a valid excuse. “In periods of drought, Turkey helps itself and leaves the rest for the Kurds, in defiance and in full knowledge of the consequences,” says Balanche.

Iraq and Syria are especially delicate territories

The United Nations have warned that heatwaves will be increasingly destructive in the Mediterranean. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Syria is one of the highest-risk countries. Even Lake Assad is a victim of this trend. “The olive trees are thirsty and the animals are hungry,” comments Hussein Saleh, a villager from Twihiniyyeh, where blackouts have increased from nine to nineteen hours a day. “If it continues like this, we could stop electricity production for all except bakeries, flour mills and hospitals,” adds engineer Khaled Shaheen.

In a country where 60 per cent of the population struggles to put food on the table, not having water for irrigation is a death sentence. Another seven million people risk being left without water resources in Iraq. While governments pay attention to their borders, the climate makes no such distinctions. We all face this challenge as one.

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