Fayez Sara

Water in Syria: Today’s Thirst, Tomorrow’s Disasters

Syria is not the only country facing water scarcity in the eastern Mediterranean. This is a prevailing situation across the region's countries (excluding Türkiye), as each country faces varying degrees of issues related to water.

However, the Syrian problems in this regard are the most severe and challenging, not only because of the lack of water, but also because of the repercussions resulting from the war in Syria and its surrounding areas that excberated the situation.

A quick look at the reality of water in Syria shows that it is characterized by a set of factors. The first is that running water is shared with other states. In fact, Syria shares with neighboring countries most of the sources and estuaries of its rivers, which makes it dependent on understandings and agreements with the upstream and downstream countries in the neighborhood, which include Türkiye in the north, in the Euphrates and some of its tributaries and the Tigris.

Syria also shares the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris with Iraq in the east, and the waters of the Yarmouk Valley with Jordan in the south, the waters of the Orontes with Lebanon in the west, and with Türkiye in the northwest.

Another factor that contributed to the Syrian water crisis is the stormy climatic effects, which have persisted in recent decades, leading to a decrease in the amount of rain. Reasons that have general and private effects perpetuated two phenomena: the decline in the quantities of running water, and the deterioration of groundwater reserves.

The third factor is represented by the fact that Syria’s water, over the past decades, was subjected to unregulated, often random and impractical policies, based on administrative and organizational corruption and favoritism of the influential and close people in most cases and in all regions.

Perhaps the worst example of these policies was the widespread use of pumps to draw water from river beds, draining some of them, and depleting groundwater.

The past decade has further shaped the characteristics of Syrian water by mixing its fundamental qualities with the impacts of war and political conflicts on the water situation. This has led to a series of facts, the most prominent of which is the collapse of water management unity along with all with all its defects. As a result, water, in all its details, is now under the control of various and diverse authorities lacking sufficient knowledge, expertise, and technological capabilities. Even if available, these resources are limited. This has made the water issue susceptible to overall randomness and sometimes subject to conflicting interests, policies, and even malicious intentions.

The second fact, which was produced by the war, is represented by the spread of pollution in various ways, beginning with the mixing of water with oil and its derivatives, which was not limited to the locations of oil extraction in eastern and northeastern Syria, but rather extended to the primitive refining areas across the country.

Moreover, sewage infiltrated into drinking water networks and underground water reservoirs. Perhaps the clearest example of this situation was in the random housing areas, which were hastily established to accommodate hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in the northwest, a situation that worsened with time.

The third factor is the violation of waterways, making them a dumping ground for waste, and the diversion of sewage paths from residential and industrial areas, as happened in Homs and its Ghouta and in the countryside of Damascus.

Other important factors affected the Syrian waters in light of the war, represented by practices committed by Syria’s northern neighbors. The first is the reduction of the Syrian-Iraqi share, which Türkiye passes through the Euphrates waters, and the deterioration of its quality, as indicated in some reports. No party is scrutinizing the matter. Rather, the bad relations between Ankara and the “Syrian Democratic Council” exacerbate the Turkish behavior in this file.

The other aspect of the Turkish intervention is Ankara’s control over local sources of water in its areas of influence in northwestern Syria. In 2020, the Turkish authorities opened the drainage gates of the Maydanki Lake dam near Afrin to draw water to the Reyhanli Dam in the Turkish state of Hatay, which reduced the lake’s reservoir to half.

The dark picture of the Syrian water is likely to worsen in terms of quantity and quality. This situation threatens the life of the population, not only because of water scarcity, but also because of the inability to provide food and electricity as a result of the problem. The impact of the water deterioration extends to the rest of industrial and tourism activities, especially since Syria will later enter the phase of reconstruction, and will need more water for construction work.

Securing the basic needs of the population in terms of domestic water is achieved with difficulty in all regions, amid high costs. The condition of agricultural water is almost similar, despite the combination of different sources of rain, running and ground water. In addition, there is a clear deficit in the use of water to generate electricity, which reaches about 70 percent, due to the low level of dams.

The current status of water in Syria puts the largest part of the Syrian population at the level of thirst. The persistence of this problem will take them to the worst, affecting their food security through the inability to produce food, especially wheat and vegetables, and make them lose health security due to the spread of diseases and epidemics, including cholera. The worsening of the situation will add to the destruction of the remaining productive or extractive industries, in addition to services. This reality calls on the Syrians and those concerned with the Syrian file to launch urgent efforts to confront this threat, before it leads to disasters, which would be difficult to address.