Syria Direct – Turkish dams threaten northeast Syria with ecological and economic blight

Original Article by Will Christou, Syria Direct, 11 August 2020

AMMAN — Last month, a sweltering heatwave hit Syria, with temperatures reaching as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius), and in the sprawling camp of al-Hol in the far northeastern desert of the country, ice was in short supply. The factories in Hasakah city, which would usually send ice to the camp which hosts families formerly living under ISIS rule, have been unable to keep up with recent demand due to continual blackouts in the city, sometimes lasting 12 hours a day. 

The shortage of electricity is just one of the more immediate consequences of a deeper problem in the area: the water is running out. 

In the past, the Euphrates river—which runs from Turkey through Syria before draining into the Arab Gulf via Iraq—would help generate adequate hydroelectric energy for the northeast. According to the Qamishli-based Rojava Information Center, “80 percent of northeast Syria electricity is hydroelectrically generated.”

In recent weeks, however, the flow of the Euphrates has been reduced by “65 percent … to less than 200 cubic meters per second,” according to a UN Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report on July 27. 

Though the UN document does not name who is responsible for the restriction of the river, officials of the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) have previously accused Turkey of damming the Euphrates and deliberately choking its downward flow. 

Turkey sits at the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates basin and is one of the most active dam-building countries in the world. Numerous scientists, environmental activists and AA officials told Syria Direct that Turkey has been restricting the downstream flow of the Euphrates into Syria for years.

Until recently there has been little hard data to support these  claims, as Syria’s instability since 2011 meant little monitoring of the river once it passed into the country.

Is less water really reaching Syria? 

The only direct measurement of the Euphrates flow in Syria since 2011 was at the Jarablus monitoring station in northern Aleppo in 2015, where the mean flow was measured at 330 cubic meters per second, 40% less than the average amount in 2010. Per the terms of a 1987 agreement between Turkey and Syria, the Euphrates should be maintained at a minimum of 500 cubic meters per second.

If the 2015 measurement is indeed indicative of the typical downstream flow of the Euphrates over the last ten years, the effect on the local environment and population could be disastrous, as the UN estimates the “natural” downstream flow at Jarablus to be around 1,000 cubic meters per second. However, due to the lack of monitoring data since 2011, it is impossible to definitively say whether or not the 2015 Jarablus measurement was an anomaly or the norm.

In an effort to measure the flow of the Euphrates, in July 2019, Arnon Karnieli, the head of the Beersheba-based Remote Sensing Laboratory, led a study of vegetation growth rates in the area, comparing the growth rates of crops in northern Syria and the area immediately opposite it across the border. 

A comparison of vegetation growth rates via satellite analysis, July 2019, (Karnieli et al)

The study found that in both March 2011 and 2015, at the end of the rainy season, there was no significant difference between crop growth rates—wheat being the main crop in March—and in fact, the Syrian side actually enjoyed slightly denser vegetation growth. 

However, for those irrigation-dependent crops harvested in September—such as cotton—vegetation density on the Syrian side decreased from 2011 to 2015, while there was a positive growth rate on the Turkish side during the same time period. 

The study also looked at the water levels of two reservoirs which are principally fed by the Euphrates river, Lake Ataturk in southern Turkey and Lake Assad in northern Syria, between 2011 and 2015. Similar to the irrigation-dependent crops, a stark disparity between the two reservoirs emerged, as the water levels of Lake Assad drastically declined while those of Lake Ataturk sharply rose. 

Change over time in water level in Lake Ataturk and Lake Assad relative to 2002 via satellite analysis, July 2019, (Karnieli et al)

The AA Co-Chair of the Commission on Economy and Agriculture, Salman Barudo, confirmed to Syria Direct that there has indeed been a significant decrease in the yield of certain crops due to the “drying up” of distributary rivers which branch off of the Euphrates. He further added that the water coming from Turkey was oftentimes contaminated with pharmaceutical waste, negatively impacting the quality of crops grown.

Syria Direct contacted the Turkish Water Institute and Ministry of Agriculture for a comment but had not yet received a response at the time of publishing. 

Ecological consequences 

A sustained reduction in the flow of the Euphrates not only impacts Syrian agricultural production but also has the potential to further exhaust the country’s freshwater aquifer reservoirs. 

Like the rest of the Middle East, Syria’s aquifers have been steadily depleted due to population growth, inefficient use of water and climate change. Even prior to 2011, Syria was increasingly drawing on groundwater reserves as irrigated croplands expanded and the Euphrates and its various distributary rivers slowed. 

“In 1982, the water level was at 10 meters; now, the water levels of the reservoirs are about 100-150 meters below ground,” Joseph Lahdo, the co-chair of the AA’s Commission on Water, told Syria Direct

With limited ability to irrigate their crops via the Euphrates, farmers are increasingly turning to groundwater reserves to compensate, digging new wells and exhausting old ones, further shrinking Syria’s aquifers. In 2001, there were about 1,500 private wells in all of Syria; today, there are 28,000 wells on the Khabour-Tigris basin alone, according to a March 2019 memo by the AA’s Commission on Water seen by Syria Direct

The effect of further well-drilling and groundwater pumping are two-fold: shrinking the water table, and increasing the concentration of contaminants and toxic elements such as arsenic in the aquifers, according to Dr. Sameh al-Muqdadi, a hydrogeologist at the German Freiberg University of Mining and Technology.

With no current recharge mechanism and a reduced Euphrates flow, it is likely that the quality and availability of groundwater in northeast Syria will deteriorate at an accelerated rate.

For Turkey, water and the ‘Kurdish issue’ are inseparable 

Since the 1980s, the fate of Kurds and water have been interlinked in the Tigris-Euphrates water basin. The most recent agreements between Turkey and Syria governing the usage of the transboundary rivers—an informal agreement in 1987 and the Adana agreement of 1998—are foremost concerned with Kurdish political activity, then secondarily with maintaining a minimum downstream flow of the Euphrates.

Turkey has historically held immense leverage over its two downstream neighbors, Syria and Iraq. In an effort to increase its bargaining power and put pressure on Turkey, Syria allowed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—deemed a terrorist group by the US, EU and Turkey—to operate within the country and stage attacks from its northern border regions until 1998.

After the signing of the Adana agreement until the Syrian revolution in 2011, Turkish-Syrian cooperation on water issues was moving in a positive direction and construction even began on a “Syria-Turkey Friendship Dam” in a border town between the two countries. However, since then relations have soured, particularly due to the activity of the Kurdish-led AA in northeast Syria. 

Turkey views the Kurdish party leading the AA, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to be an extension of the PKK and sees Syria as once again allowing the Kurdish militant group to operate from within its borders. In its eyes, since Syria has failed to uphold its end of the bargain, Turkey is absolved of any obligation to abide by the minimum flow agreements in previous treaties and agreements.

Lack of international obligation frees Turkey to intensify dam-usage and fully exploit the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which allows Ankara to address two of its most pressing national security issues: the energy shortage and the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, Dr. Muqdadi explained. 

As of 2018, Turkey relied on imports for 75 percent of its domestic energy needs; however, massive investment in domestic energy production projects, such as the construction of 22 dams under the Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP), has helped plug energy shortages. In 2019, the amount of energy produced by Turkey’s three largest dams—all of which sit on the Euphrates—doubled

Further, the GAP project is concentrated in the country’s south, the poorest and most underdeveloped section of the country, and where the greatest concentration of Turkey’s Kurds live. The massive scale of the project has provided tens of thousands of jobs to the area and is meant to “contribute to the integration of the Kurds into the Turkish nation and reduce support for the separatist demands of the PKK,” according to Dr. Jeremy Allouche, a professor at the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies. 

By constructing dams and drawing on the Euphrates to fill them, Turkey is aiming to bolster support within its own Kurdish community while at the same time depriving what it sees as a PKK offshoot on its southern border of water, electricity and cash flow from agriculture. 

Still, while the current transboundary water management policies benefit Turkey, the long term effects could be harmful to both it and Syria as the lack of water further destabilizes the area immediately on its southern border.