The dry landscape of Tabqa – home to the biggest dam in Syria – is defined by corn fields and small olive groves.
When I visit, it is the beginning of autumn but the harvest has been scarce due to recurring droughts and water shortages. ‘At this time of the year we need to irrigate,’ explains Mubarak Mohammed, a farmer whose main income comes from corn. He looks over his equipment and field as he explains that corn in this region usually requires approximately four irrigation rounds per year. ‘This year we had to irrigate eight times,’ he explains. Still half of his corn did not get the water it needed.
Rojava, or the de facto Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), has been dealing with a water crisis since 2021. The plummeting level of the Euphrates, Syria’s longest river and one of the longest in the world, is causing power outages and water shortages in a region where agriculture is the main source of income. The river originates in Turkey, which controls nearly 90 per cent of the water flow. As itruns through Syria towards Iraq, it’s the main supplier of water for farming and electricity production.
Syria and Turkey are treaty-bound to share the precious resource by an agreement dating back to 1987, when Turkey agreed to allow 500 cubic metres of water per second to flow into Syria. In exchange, Syria accepted to end supporting the activities of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which had been labelled a terrorist organization by Ankara.
More than 30 years on, co-operation in the shared basin has failed. Since early 2021 the water supply from Turkey has progressively decreased to a worrying level, resulting in lower energy production and threatening the livelihoods of millions. The chaos involved in a decade of war has exacerbated the situation. Water has also been weaponized by Turkey, as part of a wider assault against Rojava that has included several military assaults.
A radical alternative
Rojava, translated as ‘West of Kurdistan’, emerged from the power vacuum left when Assad’s forces abandoned northern Syria in 2012. As the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Defense Forces (YPG) took control of the Kurdish-majority areas, a declaration of the de-facto autonomy followed in January 2014.
Since Rojava was established, Turkish authorities in Ankara have been preoccupied with the idea that sharing a border with a Kurdish entity will eventually have an impact on ‘the Kurdish issue’ at home. The not so well hidden concern is a stronger demand of autonomy and rights by the Turkish Kurds.
As Vanessa Baird wrote for New Internationalist in 2020, ‘Rojava is viewed as a haven of grassroots democracy, based on principles of feminism, ecology, cultural pluralism, participatory politics and a co-operative sharing economy. Since 2012 it has presented a radical alternative to the nation state, articulated as “democratic confederalism” by Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.’
Rojava’s perceived connection with the PKK makes it even more an unwelcome neighbour. Any link between the PKK and Kurdish organizations in Turkey is considered by Ankara as a threat to its own existence and integrity.
Two major invasions of Rojava were launched by Turkey in 2018 and 2019 under the name-code ‘Operation Olive Branch’ and ‘Operation Peace Spring’. The two ceasefire agreements reached in 2019 resulted in the deployment of Kurdish-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) about 30 kilometres away from the Turkish-Syrian border, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced and increased insecurity across the region.
In May 2022, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced preparations for a new ground invasion aimed at securing a 30 kilometre ‘safe zone’, extending the Turkish-occupied areas. Drone and artillery attacks intensified over the summer, hitting civilian settlements along the border. Since November airstrikes on civilians have caused extensive damage and aggravated the increasingly grave humanitarian situation.
‘I call it a crisis’
Inside his office at the Tabqa dam, in the Raqqa governorate, the co-chair of the Energy and Power Board of Rojava, Ziyad Rustum, confirms that Turkey has been cutting off nearly half of the water it had formerly agreed to release.
‘[As per in the treaty] we should receive 500 metre-cubed of water per second from Turkey, but at the moment it’s around 220-230 metre-cubed,’ he says.
Through its own network of dams Turkey can effectively readjust the amount of water directed to its southern neighbour, and decide how much water will be available to the people of Rojava.
‘When this dam was under control of the Syrian government it was always full. Water was flowing, electricity was produced and agriculture was practiced.
‘When Al-Nusra came, dams were full as well. The same with Daesh. The dam was full until the city was liberated.’
By May 2021 the water in the Euphrates’ reservoir at Lake Assad reached its lowest levels since 2013, the year when the Syrian regime lost control of the area. A year later, as a result of the prolonged shortages, only four out of eight turbines at the Tabqa dam were fully operational.
‘When the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militias) took control of this area, we fixed two gates to release some of the water and avoid a collapse of the dam. It took a couple of months, but we started seeing the benefit. Turkey noticed that, and they immediately decreased the amount of water released.’
An additional source of pressure, according to Rustum, comes from the construction of the South Eastern Anatolia Project, or GAP, an extensive network of dams and hydroelectric power plants in eastern Turkey – a project that has been ongoing since the 1970s. Many in Rojava fear the project will further jeopardize the area’s share of water.
‘I call it a crisis,’ says Rustum, who has to make difficult decisions in the management of a multipurpose reservoir. ‘I’m trying to reduce the amount allocated to power generation and to prioritize the demand for drinking and irrigation. But we won’t be able to support irrigation for much longer.’ He expects that the whole region will run out of drinking water soon.
Similarly, limited power generation has an impact on the daily work of farmers.
‘We are affected by the lack of power because some of us use electric irrigation pumps instead of gasoline pumps,’ explains Mubarak. But the power outages make irrigation an irregular activity. ‘In the past they would grant power for five hours a day continuously, but now they cut it off every half an hour.’
When asked about the option of growing crops with lower water requirements, he points out that Rojava’s soil is mainly suitable for corn, wheat, barley and cotton, with the latter being a highly water-intensive plant.
With fuel prices on the rise and the Syrian pound exchange rate volatility, many will not be able to run their gas pumps for long. Mubarak admits that many are considering giving up the cultivation of their lands.‘Thousands are depending on agriculture, so all of these people will be jobless... They are trying to leave Syria for Europe.’
Travelling towards the eastern side of the region, beyond Raqqa, fields of wheat alternate with dry pastures and barren land. Eid Al-Sobeih, a local man with a family of a dozen children, paints a picture of how farmers are adapting to the crisis.
‘The amount of farming land has decreased in the past two years, both for the lack of water and decreasing rainfall.’ He has stopped growing corn and cotton to focus on wheat and barley. The decision was prompted by water scarcity but also the price of fuel which he needs to pump the water from his well. ‘We don’t have the capacity to dig more, and we don’t get any support from the local authorities for that,’ he says.
The war on water
With millions of people relying on the Euphrates and its tributaries, a common view in Rojava is that Turkey is deliberately polluting the waters released into its territory. According to the co-chair of Tabqa dam, most of the water flowing from Turkey contains sand, cement residues and waste. Water quality in some of the tributaries is also deteriorating.
Contaminated water represents an important threat to agriculture and health, harming crops and endangering residents’ health. Basic foods such as eggplant and cucumber are unsafe to eat. But residents have limited options. ‘In the current situation, people cannot be selective and will still use this water to grow anything,’ says Rustum.
According to him, this is another example of Turkey’s political use of water, a ‘sanction’ that it is imposing on the people of Rojava.
‘Everyone can observe the difference in the Euphrates level on the Turkish and the Syrian side.’
Yasser Darwish, a farmer who owns an extensive olive grove and a wheat field, acknowledges that he has the financial means to risk his money, but for the vast majority of people in Rojava this is not an option. Many in this area can only afford to produce enough wheat for their immediate family each year. Competition for irrigation water pumped from small canals is also causing divisions within local communities as farmers often fight for their share.
At a time of heightened political tensions at the Turkish border and inside Rojava, some question why the international community doesn’t compel the Turkish state to abide by the 1987 resource-sharing treaty with Syria. Farmer Yasser Darwish is also an agricultural expert who worked at the Directorate of Agriculture in Syria during the Assad regime: ‘This region is the main foodbasket of Syria.
‘We don’t need any weapons or food. Just give us water and we’ll be able to provide enough food for our people.’
Thank you to Muhammed Ahmed, for his interpretation from Kurdish.
Gisella Ligios is a multimedia journalist based in Berlin. She covers breaking news and writes about politics, migration and conflict.