Euphrates in Northeastern Syria Turns into ‘River of Death’
Is Ankara using the Euphrates River as a weapon against its Kurdish rivals in northeastern Syria? Is the Kurdish autonomous administration east of the Euphrates using the issue to rally support against Ankara? Is it true that the river, which was once a symbol of life, has now been transformed into a “river of death” due to pollution from oil leaking into its stream?
Damascus and Ankara had signed in 1987 a temporary agreement over sharing the Euphrates water. They agreed that Turkey would get some 500 square meters of water per second. In another agreement with Baghdad in the 1990s, Ankara would allow at least 58 percent of the water to reach Iraq.
Over the decades, the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers were often a point of contention between Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Damascus had allegedly bolstered its relations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, for many reasons, including maintaining the “water file” that it would use as a main negotiations card against Ankara. The flow of the water has become essential for Turkey as many of its major projects hinge on it.
The Euphrates begins in Turkey, passes through Syria and ends in Iraq where it empties in the Gulf. The amount of water shares each country is entitled to has become a point of contention between them. During better days, Ankara used to inform Damascus through diplomatic channels of its plans to fill up its dams in southeastern Turkey. Syria would, in turn, take the necessary arrangements. It has built three major dams on the Euphrates for storing of water and electricity generation.
After 2012, circumstances began to change. Turkey now believes that the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern and northeastern Syria would pose a strategic threat to it. Damascus, which enjoyed alliance with Kurdish forces, now looks at them with great suspicion, especially after their growing relations with the anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States. Relations frayed even further with the emergence of ISIS in 2014 and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces’ spearheading of operations against it with US backing.
The divide with Damascus grew even wider after the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous administration east of the Euphrates. This also sparked major tensions with Ankara, which turned to Moscow, without informing Damascus, to strike understandings to block Kurdish expansion in Syria.
The latest developments have seen the Kurdish autonomous administration accuse Ankara of deliberately lowering the flow of the Euphrates water. The director of the dams, Mohammed Tarboush, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Turks are using the water as a weapon against us.”
“They allow the water to flow when our lakes are full so that we are unable to benefit from the flow to generate power and irrigate lands,” he explained. “They block the flow when we most need it.”
An informed Syrian source shared a different view. He said Ankara was not using the water as a “weapon”, saying Turkey was respecting agreements and allowing the flow accordingly. The Syrian authorities are being informed of the dam filling schedule as usual.
The Kurds are using the water file for propaganda purposes, like they do with other issues, he charged.
A Kurdish official speculated that Ankara may have informed Damascus that it was lowering the flow, “which raises questions about whether they are working against us.”
‘River of Death’
Meanwhile, Dutch nongovernmental organization PAX released a report this week on the pollution of the Euphrates River. Entitled “River of Death”, the report shed light on ongoing pollution from chronic leakage and dumping from a large storage facility. Tens of thousands of barrels of oil have leaked into the channels and streams that pour into the Euphrates.
Roughly 15 km southwest of Derik, or al-Malikiyah as it is known in Arabic, a large oil storage facility, previously owned by the Syrian Petroleum Company, collects all the crude oil coming from the Suwaydiyah (also known as the Jazeera or Rmeilan) oil field, said the report. “Under ideal circumstances, the facility can store up to 2.4 million barrels of oil, according to experts from renowned oil tracking website TankerTrackers.com. But the story on the ground is far from ideal.”
The looming environmental disaster started early on after the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, when the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party took over most of the area from the Syrian regime and later established the autonomous administration. “Using satellite imagery from NASA’s Landsat 8, in orbit since February 2013, we can see that the facility struggled with containing oil waste in summer 2013. Open-air reservoirs were expanding on the perimeter in July and August 2013.”
“Soon after, however, the reservoirs began to leak, and a significant part of the facility’s grounds turned black as oil and/or oil waste spilled over.”
The leaks have raised fear among the local population on their health and negative impact on the soil and ground water, which is now polluted. Farmers have lost entire crops to the pollution after seasonal rains flooded polluted canals and streams, covering thousands of hectares in oil.
The leaks are ongoing, according to PAX’s Humanitarian Disarmament program leader Wim Zwijnenburg, who is also one of the authors of the report. He said the local population was suffering, urging the need for “bold” steps to be taken by all concerned parties, including countries, to reach a permanent solution.