One of the precipitating causes of the war in Syria (no pun intended) was the increasing scarcity of water in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin as a result of climate change and the deliberate policies of weaponization of water supplies by Turkey and its neighbour states. Drought has had a firm grip on the region since 1998 and the recent dry spell is likely the driest period on record in 900 years and almost certainly the worst drought in 500 years.
The drought during 2005 caused 75 percent of Syria's farms to fail and 85 percent of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. The collapse in crop yields forced as many as 1.5 million Syrians to migrate to urban centres, like Homs and Damascus.[i]
The projections for the region show a continued drying trend throughout the coming century as climate change contributes to a shift in circulation patterns. That means what’s happening there now could just be the start of more prolonged, more severe drought. In a region already wracked by water scarcity and conflict, more drying could ratchet up tension even further.[ii]
It was the continuing crisis over water which provided the backdrop to the Syrian Crisis. By 2011, drought-related crop failure in Syria had pushed up to 1.5 million displaced farmers to abandon their land; those displaced farmers became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the Islamic State (also called ISIS or Daesh) and al Qaeda. Testimonies gathered by reporters and activists in conflict zones suggested that the lack of government help during the drought was a central motivating factor in the anti-government rebellion in Syria. Moreover, a 2011 study shows that today’s rebel strongholds of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure.
In other words, drought changed the economic, social, and political landscape of Syria. Iraq, already reeling from Daesh and sectarian tension, was next. In 2006, a leaked U.S. State Department cable forecast that Syria’s “emerging water crisis carries the potential for severe economic volatility and even socio-political unrest.” This cable was a clear warning about Iraq as well. By 2011, Iraqi wheat yields had fallen by over 50 percent. Much of the country’s livestock had died, affecting hundreds of thousands of fieldworkers and farmers. Despite losing 1.6 million tons of grain to Daesh and consuming 2.5 million tons more than it can produce, Iraq had planned to become a grain exporter by 2017. This closely mirrored Syria’s ambition at the time of the 2006 cable. In those years, Damascus hoped to dramatically increase agricultural production as a part of an economic diversification plan. Syria had already doubled its irrigated land in the preceding 15 years, and its 2006 five-year plan projected further increases.
In the cable, embassy officials note that agriculture experts believed that Syria’s growing water demand was outstripping water availability. Despite this situation of decreased water flows the Turks continued to build dams, restricting the flows even further. Between 1975 and 1991, on three occasions, Syria and Iraq threatened Turkey with military action (and at one point they threatened each other) over reduced river flows due to dams in Turkey. Negotiations stopped and started as relations between the nations fluctuated. Since then, climate change and population growth have put extreme pressure on regional freshwater, heightening the impact of the damming of the two rivers.
One of the key players in the control of the water flows in the nations of the Fertile Crescent (Turkey, Iraq and Syria) is Turkey through which these rivers flow. In the 1960s, Turkey, Syria and Iraq negotiated a new phase of their relationship over water, as a result of Turkey’s decision to construct the Keban Dam on the Euphrates. After prolonged negotiations, Turkey guaranteed to maintain a discharge of 350 m3/s immediately downstream from the dam, provided that the natural flow of the river was adequate to supply this discharge.
The price for an agreement between Turkey and Syria was that the Syrians would crack down on the large Kurdish population living near the Turkish border.[iii] The fundamental problem in this division of the waters of the Tigris-Euphrates is that the levels of water have been gradually diminishing and water shortages are an ever-growing problem for Syria and Iraq.[iii] Since 1975, Turkey’s extensive dam and hydropower construction has reportedly reduced water flows into Iraq and Syria by approximately 80 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. Approximately 90 per cent of the water flow in the Euphrates and 50 per cent in the Tigris originate in Turkey. This has left Syria and Iraq vulnerable.
The Turks only use about 35% of the water flow and this is largely because it manages the flow through an elaborate system of dams. The pièce de résistance of the program of dam-building in Turkey was the gigantic Southern Anatolian Project (known by its Turkish acronym, GAP), which commenced in the 1970s and encompasses 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plants and several irrigation networks. GAP remains the second biggest integrated water development project in the world, covering approximately 10 percent of Turkey’s population and an equivalent surface area.[iv]
This situation was made critical with the rise of Daesh. The ongoing spread of Daesh across the region has ended up with Daesh seizing control of water resources in both Syria and Iraq. Daesh is able to use water structures as a means to prevent local populations (especially near Baghdad and the Shiite population inhabiting the southern part of Iraq) from accessing water. However, Daesh in northern Syria and near Mosul in Iraq are dependent on water flows from Turkey. This means that there is a limited amount of pressure that either Iraq or Syria (and Daesh as well) can apply to Turkey without risking a severe shortage of water.
One of the most important of these dams is the Tabqa Dam. The Tabqa Dam is an earth-fill dam on the Euphrates, located 40 kilometres (25 mi) upstream from the city of Ar-Raqqah in Ar-Raqqah Governorate, Syria, the Daesh headquarters. The dam is 60 metres (200 ft) high and 4.5 kilometres (2.8 mi) long and is the largest dam in Syria. Its construction led to the creation of Lake Assad, Syria's largest water reservoir. The dam was constructed between 1968 and 1973 with help from the Soviet Union. It was one of the first Syrian assets seized by Daesh. Its flow, however, can be regulated by the Keban Dam north of it in Turkey and, with a diminished flow, its salinity is increasing. Lake Assad is now almost empty.
Daesh fought the Iraqi Army over the Fallujah Dam and took it over. With monstrous incompetence Daesh immediately closed the dam and stopped the water flow downstream. This left towns such as Karbala and Najaf without water. But it also caused the reservoir behind the dam to overflow east, flooding some 500 square kilometres of farmland and thousands of homes as far as Abu Ghraib, about 40 kilometres away on the outskirts of Baghdad. Later, Daesh suddenly reopened the dam, causing major flooding downstream. They then began the attack on the critical Haditha Dam; the dam seized by U.S. Rangers in 2003 to stop Saddam’s attempt to engage in hydrological warfare. The Iraqis resisted Daesh but it is still a conflicted area.
By far the most difficult challenge in the water wars is the battle for Mosul Dam. For several weeks in July and August 2014, Daesh captured and held Mosul Dam from the Peshmerga. On August 17, 2014, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army launched a successful operation to retake control of the dam from Daesh. United States airstrikes assisted the Kurdish and Iraqi military, damaging or destroying nineteen vehicles belonging to Daesh, as well as striking a Daesh checkpoint near the dam. Mosul Dam is the largest in Iraq. It barricades the Tigris about 40 kilometres upstream of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
The Mosul Dam is an engineering disaster waiting to happen. Back in 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called it “the most dangerous dam in the world.” Its foundations are built on porous gypsum that is constantly being dissolved by water in the reservoir, creating sinkholes that threaten to collapse the foundations. To keep it stable, hundreds of employees have to work around the clock, pumping a cement mixture into the earth below. Without continuous maintenance, the rock beneath will wash away, causing the dam to sink and then break apart. But Iraq’s recent history has not been conducive to that kind of vigilance. The U.S. Corps of Engineers outlined a worst-case scenario, in which a collapse of the dam would flood Mosul under 65 feet (20 m) of water and Baghdad, a city of 7 million, to 15 feet (4.6 m), with an estimated death toll of 500,000.
When Daesh fighters took the dam, in 2014, they drove away the overwhelming majority of the dam’s workers and also captured the main cement grout-manufacturing plant in Mosul. Much of the dam’s equipment was destroyed, some by ISIS and some by American air strikes. The grouting came to a standstill—but the passage of water underneath the dam did not. The Iraqis are worried that the time gap between the takeover by Daesh and the restoration of control of the dam by Iraq allowed new sinkholes to form under the dam and that they will not be able to fill them in time to prevent the dam’s collapse. There is currently fighting between Iraqi Special Forces and the Peshmerga trying to take over Mosul and Daesh periodically tries to mortar the Mosul Dam to destroy it.
The water situation in Damascus is different. Water doesn’t come from the Tigris-Euphrates complex, it comes from two springs; the Fijeh and Barada springs. The Fijeh springs are a group of three large karstic springs - The Fijeh main spring, the Fijeh side spring and the Harouch spring - in the Barada gorge. The three springs used to contribute half the flow of the Barada River. The Barada spring is located North of the Fijeh springs close to the Lebanese border. The entire flow of all these springs is captured through wells positioned around the springs. Water from the Barada and Fijeh springs is transferred to a mixing station near Dummar where it is chlorinated and distributed to the city. The city’s water supply is complemented by small wells in the plains around the city.
During the drought, which began in 2005 the waters which fed Damascus were also affected. The water volumes diminished by almost half. However, that was not Syria’s biggest challenge. The suburbs north of Damascus are controlled by rebel groups, not by Assad’s forces. The Wadi Barada valley is a rebel-held pocket of territory northwest of Damascus that the Syrian army and its allies have been trying to recapture, but with little success. In the fighting the water supplies in the Wadi Barada were deliberately targeted and the pro-Assad forces bombed a key water pumping station. At least four million people in Damascus were without safe drinking water supplies for more than a week in late December after springs outside the Syrian capital were deliberately targeted.
The cut off of the pumping allowed waste water and chemicals to pollute the water supplies and it took over a week to clean the system and begin pumping again, but with only a severely diminished flow. Wadi Barada lies on a road from Damascus to the Lebanese border that is a supply line for the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group which is why the rebels continue to bomb the installations and the Hezbollah bomb the rebels without consulting their Syrian commanders.
As a result of the drought the agricultural industry in Syria is in shambles. In cities like Aleppo which were heavily bombed, the water supplies were deliberately cut. The Assad regime cut off and destroyed the water system in East Aleppo and the various rebel groups did the same in West Aleppo. With the priority of providing safe drinking water to the fifteen million Syrians who are only irregularly supplied with water the irrigation systems for agriculture have been almost abandoned. Food production is very low and the internal transport system is in shambles with roads cut, snipers of the various factions lining the roads and severely reduced fuel supplies. Syria is a logistics nightmare which is growing worse as the drought continues and the bombing continues near Al-Bab and the Wadi Barada.
Despite the putative ceasefire brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran the Free Syrian Army hold Damascus to ransom as they continue their control of the Damascus water supply. As the Assad forces continue their bombing campaign in the Wadi Barada they run the risk of doing even more damage to the Fijeh and Barada springs; the Hezbollah are continuing their bombing of the region without reference to the ceasefire or the Syrian Army.
The use of water in Syria and Iraq has caused few, if any, military battlefield casualties. However, the water weapon has certainly taken its toll on vulnerable non-combatants. This can be measured both by the suffering caused by mass migration and by outbreaks of waterborne disease, which come from water contamination and the lack of basic water sanitation and hygiene facilities in refugee camps. The water weapon has proven relatively useless as a tactical military weapon but effective as a tool of political control. However, the humanitarian consequences of diminished water supply due to weaponization are likely to last longer into the future, whatever the immediate outcome of the war.[v]
In fact, the water weapon is a key element of Daesh warfare, both threatening the population with a cut-off of services or by a massive flooding of whole regions with the destruction of dams. These questions are not addressed by the ‘peacemakers’ of Russia, Turkey and Iran. In fact, by picking and choosing which areas are able to be bombed with impunity, the ‘peacemakers’ have prepared the way for the failure of any meaningful or lasting peace. The Free Syrian Army and its YPG allies are clear that they will not settle for a ‘peace’ which allows the continued bombing of the Al-Bab and Wadi Barada areas. This is a strange sort of peace they are proposing – a peace with continued bombing. It is like being “just a little pregnant”.
The environmental clock is ticking for Syria; a long and continued drought as far ahead as a decade. There is no ‘political’ way to solve these environmental constraints and each nation will have to decide how much of the humanitarian burden of refugees, ill health and food shortages in Syria they are willing to bear. More importantly even than that, they will have to decide who will get the water and who will remain dry.
[i] Marcus DuBois King, "The Weaponization of Water in Syria and Iraq", The Washington Quarterly Vol. 38 , April ,2015
[ii] Brian Kahn , " Syria’s drought has likely been its worst in 900 years", Guardian 27/5/16
[iii] Water-Shortage Crisis Escalating in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin" Future Directions (Australia) 28 August 2012
[iv] Hilal Enver, “Turkey’s Rivers of Dispute”, MER254, 10/8/09
[v] Marcus DuBois King, op.cit.