Syria's Looming Water Calamity
by Daniel Pipes
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Two reports from Beirut's Al-Akhbar point to potentially catastrophic water problems about to affect Syria.
The lesser concerns Aleppo, where mortar shells and barrel bombs have slackened off but Islamist rebels have shut down the city's potable water supply, forcing Aleppan residents in government-controlled areas to depend on wells and trucks for limited, contaminated, and expensive water. Lines of women and children "have become ubiquitous in front of mosque fountains and government wells in order to fill small containers such as cooking pots, teapots and plastic bottles as well as small barrels." According to an official at the Syrian Red Crescent, "The situation signals a humanitarian and health disaster."
The greater problem concerns the Euphrates River, the second longest waterway of the Middle East. Nearly all its volume originates in the Republic of Turkey, from which it flows into Syria and Iraq, ending in the Persian Gulf. It provides about one-third of Syria's water supply. In the last few weeks, the Turkish government completely stopped Euphrates waters from leaving Turkey and flowing into Syria, something made possible by the enormous reservoir behind its Atatürk Dam.
This action threatens Syria and also Iraq with water crises. As one indication, the water level in Lake Assad, Syria's largest body of water, has gone down by about 20 feet. Within days, some 7 million Syrians could be left without water as well as electricity. Al-Akhbar notes that "A halt to the water supply is now inevitable and can't be resolved unless the Turkish government takes the decision to resume pumping Euphrates water." To make matters yet more worrisome, the fanatic Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group controls the Tishrin Dam, one of Syria's three dams on the Euphrates.
(1) The Syrian civil war keeps getting more ferocious, vicious, and barbaric – not a surprise given that Islamists, both domestic and foreign, dominate the fighting on both sides.
(2) The Euphrates and Tigris rivers contain some of the world's most volatile and fearsome waterworks; the Mosul Dam in Iraq, for example, could collapse, killing millions. Again, given the three states involved (Turkey, Syria, and Iraq), this also ranks as less than a surprise.
(3) Should terminal dehydration kill massive numbers of Syrians, this will likely prompt Western opinion to call for intervention.
(4) Turkey's AKP government has already shown itself callous about loss of life (recall the Soma coal mine disaster). But is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan really about to commit what appears to be genocide?
(5) The Turkish view toward water flowing downstream was immortally asserted by President Süleyman Demirel (himself a hydraulic engineer) when he dedicated the Atatürk Dam on July 25, 1992: "Neither Syria or Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey's, the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share their oil resources and they cannot say they share our water resources." (June 1, 2014)
June 24, 2014 update: "Syria's essential services are on the brink of collapse under the burden of continuous assault on critical water infrastructure" writes Nouar Shamout for Chatham House. Excerpts from his analysis, starting with the cities, especially Aleppo:
Then on to Al-Assad Lake, Syria's largest reservoir, which provides irrigation for 500 square miles of agricultural land and all of Aleppo's drinking water: its level
Shamout then discusses a possible food crisis, which he says "could also be just months away." But, these alarming problems don't phase either the Syrian regime or opposition groups, which he describes as "in a state of denial: neither is responding to, or preparing for, a food and water crisis. All efforts are concentrated on fighting; management and maintenance of water resources are left to a dwindling number of international agencies and local professionals." Beyond the humanitarian disaster, this situation "could lead to a huge outflow of people" to neighboring countries.
July 4, 2014 update: The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a press release "Regarding the Amount of Water That Turkey Releases from the Euphrates River" in which it denies a reduction in water flowing into Syria, calling reports to the contrary "unsubstantiated."
It notes, however, that because of a severe drought, there "might be decrease in some periods in the released amount of water." The MFA also takes a dig at the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, neither of which it approves of:
July 21, 2014 update: Nadia Massih notes in Beirut's Daily Star that
Aug. 9, 2014 update: Although I have seen no media coverage of the Turkish shut down of the Euphrates, it would seem to be still underway, judging by the furious reaction from an ISIS member taped in a VICE video. The Times of Israel transcribed the conversation:
Comment: Days after ISIS has captured Mosul Dam, Iraq's largest, it threatens to seize the Atatürk Dam, Turkey's largest. One would dismiss this as sheer bravado except that ISIS militiamen are winning against the Syrian, Iraqi, and Kurdish armed forces.
Sep. 10, 2014 update: John Daly reviews the situation in "Turkey's Water Policies Worry Downstream Neighbors."
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