Water used as a weapon of war in Syria

Water used as a weapon of war in Syria
Feature: The Syrian regime has been accused of denying civilians access to fresh, safe water, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer.
5 min read
05 May, 2015
Syrians are forced to desperate measures to access water [AFP]

Before arriving at a Syrian field hospital, 64-year old Maysa fell unconscious following a bout of seizures. Her exhausted body turned pale and foam came from her mouth.

Her kidneys had failed, and nurses at the hospital in Ghouta near Damascus, run by the Free Syrian Army, could not help her.

Her condition was compounded by a lack of clean drinking water, staff said.

Many people living in Ghouta are unable to find clean drinking water, said Zayn al-Khatib, a Syrian activist.

As the Damascus suburb has been under siege by regime forces for two years, inflated water prices means that it is the poorest who suffer most.

"There has not been drinking water in Douma for months," Khatib told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"Some people depend on water from wells they have dug inside or near their house. Many have contracted hepatitis and typhoid due to drinking contaminated water."

From the Aleppo in the north, to Daraa in the south, Syrians are suffering from this drought.

Water to rebel-held areas of Aleppo have been affected by the regime's barrel bombs, which have destroyed much of the water infrastructure of the city.

Regime missiles and bombs have also destroyed or severly damaged water plants in Atareb, in the Aleppo countryside, Ghantu in Homs, Qalaat al-Hosn, and Husseiniyah in Deir al-Zur.

"There has not been water in rebel areas for three years, and the problem has worsened recently," said Uqail Hussein, a journalist from Aleppo.

"In areas that are not under regime control, water cuts can last up to 10 days. According to local authorities this has been due to electricity cuts, which cause water pumps to stop working."

Rebel held-areas now rely on two main pumping stations - Suleiman al-Halabi and Bab al-Nayrab - although this is not enough to meet demand.

     In areas that are not under regime control, water cuts can last up to 10 days.

Electricity is controlled by the regime. Although Damascus is known to supply electricity to areas under the control of the Islamic State group, it has cut power off completely from FSA and other opposition-held areas.

Wafaa Sharba, from Salamiyah, in eastern Hama province said that civilians in the rebel controlled region only get water for two hours every two to three days.

Water tanks can be filled privately, but due to inflationary prices are completely out of the reach of most families.

Qassem Mohammad, a Damascus-based opposition activist, said that water in the capital is controlled by the regime. This is shared out depending on level of support for the regime in the district.

Mezzeh, in western Damascus, is controlled by the regime and receives water almost daily. Barzeh, which is rebel territory, receives water for two hours a day.

Yarmouk refugee camp and Jdeidet Artouz, also under opposition control, receive water once every 20 days. That which arrives tastes like "fuel", Mohammad says.

"I saw a man who could not pray at his son's funeral because he had not washed in more than two months," said Youssef al-Bustani, a spokesman for the revolutionary coordination committees in Damascus' countryside regione.

Yahia Tannari, an agricultural engineer working for the opposition's interim government, said that the water crisis is having a catastrophic effect on Syrian agriculture.

     I saw a man who could not pray at his son's funeral because he had not washed in over two months.
Youssef al-Bustami, Syrian opposition spokesperson

"The proportion of land in Syria that is being farmed is down 75 percent to what it was before the revolution started. The Assad regime has used water as a weapon against the farmers," he said.

Parched land

Akram Burghul, another engineer from Binnish in Idlib province said that desperate farmers are digging artesian wells to feed their parched land.

"These wells threaten Syria's water resources. Water for irrigation has been cut off to 480,000 hectares of land, which is 31 percent of the irrigated farmland of Syria."

Water and electricity shortages have led to hyperinflationary prices for both seeds and petroleum products farmers need for their tractors.

In 2011, before the revolution began, Syria produced three million tons of wheat every year. In 2014, the figure halved.

It also produced nearly a million tons of cotton before 2011 but this declined to 400,000 tons in 2014. There have been similar declines in the production of olives, cereals, and aromatic plants.

Agriculture accounts for 90 percent of Syria's water consumption, according to government and private-sector figures.

The regime's previous agricultural policies encouraged farmers to grow water-intensive crops such as wheat and cotton. Along with inefficient irrigation practices, a staggering amount of water went to waste in Syria.

In Atareb, the local council has constructed a giant water-tank in the centre of the town with support from an international aid agency.

This makes up for some of the shortfall in the town, which grew by half when 20,000 Syrians without homes fled there.

It holds 72,000 cubic litres and is connected to a number of artesian wells. A huge electricity generator operates the pumps and pipes water to different parts of the town.

Mohammad Ali, a water engineer, said that Syria needs 23 billion cubic metres of water each year in order for Syrians to receive 1000 cubic metres per head – an amount at the "poverty" line.

Average rainfall last year worked out at 825 cubic metres per head.

Syria has long suffered water shortages, and before the revolution began Damascus still reported a deficit of 1.5 billion cubic metres, which was made up by using underground sources.

In 2014, the shortage rose to 3.5 billion cubic metres and Ali estimates the figure for 2015 will rise to 6 billion cubic metres.

"All Syria's water sources are in danger, especially since the Turkish government decided to decrease Syria's share of water from the Euphrates River," Mohammad said.

The water crisis is not just the fault of the regime. Turkey's actions have caused water to rivers and springs in Syria to seriously decline.  

But there is no doubt that the war has brought Syria on the brink of another catastrophe, and drought and disease could take away many more Syrian lives than bullets and missiles have.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.