Observers


Since May, residents of northeastern Syria have noticed a visible decrease in the Euphrates's water levels. The legendary river's source is found in Turkey, and it irrigates all of northern Syria. In the self-proclaimed autonomous Kurdish region, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, villagers are accusing Turkish authorities of damming the river to monopolize the precious resource.

The waters of the Euphrates have rarely been filmed at such a low levels. In videos shared on social media, residents of northeastern Syria comment on how the mighty river has been reduced to a stream in some areas.

“Turkey has cut off the Euphrates today,” said the author of a video shot on June 29 near Raqqa that has been widely shared since early July. “We walk and we walk, towards the void. The water is cut off for all Syrians. This is what remains of the Euphrates.”


Water levels in the region have been dropping steadily since the late 1990s. One of the causes is a giant Turkish hydropower project dubbed “Southeast Anatolia” (GAP). GAP consists of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power stations that extract waters of the Tigris--which helps irrigate nations such as Iraq--and the Euphrates, which is an essential water source for Syria and Iraq. The project's largest dam, Atatürk Dam, is located on the Euphrates.

Turkish dams on the Euphrates and Tigris can hold a total capacity of 60 km3 of water. The Turkish GAP project is projected to consume up to 22 km3 per year, which would significantly reduce the Syrian and Iraqi shares of the river's water. Graphic from the National Center for Water Resources Management in Iraq.

The Euphrates crosses the Syrian border to reach the dams of Tishrin (located in the Manbij district, upstream of the Tabqa dam), Tabqa (located in the province of Raqqa, south of Manbij) and Al Baath (20 km north of Raqqa) in the northeast of the country. Since 2017, these three dams have been under the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, led by Kurdish SDF forces.
This map shows the three dams on the Euphrates in Syria: Tabqa, Tishrin and Al Baath dams. They are all under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
In this video, posted on July 22 on the local “Eye of the Euphrates” news page, a fisherman from Deir Ezzor explains that the river's water is decreasing daily. “The water used to reach the level of the trees [he indicates the place]. It's all gone now, and our crops are suffering a lot,” he adds.
 
In April, the average flow of the Euphrates from Turkey was 200 m3 / s, which is 300 m3 / s less than the amount stipulated in the agreement between the two countries, the General Autonomous Administration of Dams told the newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

The Euphrates: A river at the centre of several conflicts

According to international law, the Euphrates is an international river because it crosses through several countries. Historically, the river has been at the heart of several conflicts between the three countries that it crosses. In 1987, a temporary agreement declared that Turkey, which holds the river's source, must provide a minimum quantity of 500 m3 / s of water flow to Syrian authorities, who would in turn offer a similar rater of water flow to Iraq.

In practice, this agreement was maintained until 2012. When the Syrian regime stopped controlling the northeast region, water levels on the Syrian bank of the Euphrates were regularly reduced. After the SDF regained control over the region in October 2017, water flows at the Tishrine Dam declined from 690m3 / s to 226m3 / s between January and December, according to a 2017 report by the township of Jazeera in the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of northeastern Syria.
 

"Farmers cannot afford the cost of a well to save their crops"

Along the Euphrates, south of the Al Baath dam, farmers and fishermen in Raqqa fear that their crops will not be able to survive this particularly hot summer. The region is area far from the Mediterranean Sea, and temperatures are rising to 50 °c.
The banks of the Euphrates in Gharanij, located Deir Ezzor province in the south of the country. Video sent by Ibrahim Hassin.

Khalaf Al Khater is a farmer from Al Karamah, a small town 26 km south of Raqqa. He returned from Turkey to help his mother and sisters cultivate their fields, but the young man does not know how his family will survive the drought:
 
It has already been 25 days since the river's waters noticebly declined. The irrigation water extraction stations can no longer sustain the agricultural land. Our crops of cotton, sesame, corn and spelt lack irrigation.

Usually we sow seeds in May and harvest in the fall. Almost all of our plants are damaged because the extreme heat dries up the soil. The water suddenly stopped in May. We have thousands of acres of thirsty land.

Farmers with scarce resources cannot afford the cost of a well to save their crops. It can cost up to $400 (€ 337), which doesn't include a motor which costs $300 (€ 252). The average income of a farmer is about $50 (€ 42).

As for electricity, we used to receive it for 10 hours per day, then it was cut to six, and now four hours (for example, from 6am to 8am and from 10pm to midnight). Several inhabitants have subscribed to a private supplier and pay about 3,500 Syrian pounds (5.75 €) per month.

We are forced to buy giant blocks of ice, which cost 4,000 Syrian pounds (€ 6.73) each. Demand is very high. The last time I went to buy ice from the factory, there was a line of about 100 people.
 
This video was shot in the village of Al Sh’heel, located 45 km from Deir Ezzor. The farmer is happy to have paid only 1,500 Syrian pounds (€ 2.48) for the block of ice.
 
Fish populations have also greatly diminished: one of my friendswho was a fisherman gave up his profession to become a carpenter because he could no longer support his family.

“Cette privation turque nous tue à petit feu”

Ibrahim Hassine, 30, is a farmer and local activist in the commune of Gharanij, 90 km south of Deir Ezzor. The oil-rich region fell under control of the Islamic State between 2014 and 2017. The Rojava autonomous government has managed the area on the north bank of the Euphrates since December 2017. The south part of the river and the center of the provice have been under the regime's control since October 2017.

Video sent by our Observer Ibrahim Hassin.
 
Ibrahim Hassine;s commune suffers greatly from Turkey's frequent water cuts that decrease the flow of the Euphrates. He explains:
 
For two months now, we have observed asignificant drop in the water levels of the Euphrates at Garanij. Currently, the river's level isn't even visible. In places it just looks like a stream.
These photos, taken on July 17, show the river's very low levels at the branch called "Lesser Euphrates" near Al-Marashidah, just south of Deir Ezzor.
 
The [Syrian] regime has tried to dig wells in Deir Ezzor to extract more water from groundwater sources, but the 14m2 deep wells will not last forever. And we had to take over the work ourselves, digging deeper wells to fetch water.
 
This video was filmed in Al-Hussainiyah, located in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. It was posted in a local Facebook group on July 6. The author is delighted with the little water that he managed to pump from the river: “This noise is comforting,” the caption reads.
 
In ten years, the eastern region between Jarablus to Deir Ezzor has not ever suffered from so much drought. ISIL and the Syrian regime clashed over control of the Euphrates and nearly destroyed Deir Ezzor during the fighting. But ultimately, it is Turkish deprivation that is slowly killing us.
This photo posted on August 5 shows people fishing in very low water at Abu Hardub near Deir Ezzor.
Agricultural pumps on the banks of the Euphrates that no longer reach the water of the river, which has receded far away. Video Ayman Allawee. 

"In this region, I had never seen a State so intensely deprive populations from water"

A Kurdish engineer and environmental activist, Ercan Ayboga worked in the municipality of Diyarbakir, a Turkish town located about 100 kilometers from the Syrian borders, until 2017. He is very cognisant of the environmental issues surrounding the Euphrates.

Northeastern Syria has experienced severe drought since 2017. All along the river, we can deepen groundwater wells. This may slightly compensate for the loss at the surface, but it is dangerous to draw too much from underground resources, as they need to regenerate. The biological composition of the Euphrates has been more or less destroyed by this system, and its ecosystem extremely damaged. There are not many fish left; they have definitely migrated to lakes.

Fishermen in the village of Gharanij. Photo sent by brahim Hassin.

According to Ercan Ayboga, Turkey is pursuing a very aggressive policy towards the autonomous territories in northeastern Syria:
It is an area thatescapes Turkish control and that hampers its regional influence over Syria. In the region, I had never seen a State so severely deprive people of water. This is a violation of international law, but since no entity oppposes it, the Turkish government acts freely.
 
The Observers team contacted the Turkish Directorate of Hydraulic Works but we received no response. We will post an update if they respond.

For their part, the Turkish and Syrian authorities, have accused the Kurdish administration of exploiting the Euphrates water crisis as propaganda against both the Syrian regime and the Turkish government.

Article by Fatma Ben Hamad.