How a Turkish-induced water crisis is affecting female farmers in northeast Syria

NE Syria farmers
19 min read
08 November, 2022

As we drive from Qamishli to the border, an endless expanse of arid land plays out on both sides of the road. The view from our car window does not change for a long, long time. Some scattered sunflower patches provide a brief distraction. 

Northeast Syria and its people continue to face multifaceted socio-economic difficulties. Extreme weather and water shortages have only exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian crisis in this war-torn land.

The loss of jobs in the agriculture sector has heavily impacted the livelihood of women across the region, especially in rural areas, and has led many families to leave their homes in search of jobs in large cities. 

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Near the border with Turkey, Iman Ahmed, 17, covers herself from head to toe to “protect herself from the heat”. She is working in the eggplant fields together with dozens of other women near Qamishli, a large industrial city on the Turkish-Syrian border, primarily populated by Kurds but also with large numbers of Arabs and Assyrians. She says she often suffers from nosebleeds, “as it is too hot.” 

"Humanitarian actors have repeatedly warned the international community of the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the context of the Syrian conflict and water crisis. However, international attention, as well as the funding, is shifting towards other more high-profile wars, like the Russia-Ukraine conflict"

While we are talking, the women in the field are carrying heavy loads of harvested eggplants to the nearby stockpiles. The scorching sun only makes the work more difficult. “We have been here since 5 am,” Ahmed said, “we work until mid-day, we rest a little bit and come back to the fields.”

But the long day does not end even after getting back home. “I do the chores of cleaning, washing, and taking care of my brothers,” she said, “I have eight sisters and three brothers.”

As we leave, these women return to the fields, their breathing measured and heavy in the 40-degree heat. Behind them are the mountain ridges on the other side of the border. Black smoke rises from the oil refineries near the local village in Qamishli. 

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The other day it was nearly 40 degree Celsius at the Washokani refugee camp in the governorate of Al-Hasakah. The unusually hot weather was noted by the General Directorate of Meteorology of Syria which reported that the temperature sometimes exceeded 50 degrees Celsius. 

We finished speaking with the camp manager in the AC-equipped office of this large camp which hosts nearly 14,000 internally-displaced people in northeast Syria.

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), called Rojava by Kurdish, is a region de facto of Kurdish control which borders Turkey to the north, Iraq to the southeast and Iraqi Kurdistan to the northeast. 

Water station, Washokani camp, Northeast Syria [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]
A water station at the Washokani camp in northeast Syria [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]

It was the hottest hour on an August summer day. Many women and children in the camp were carrying plastic containers to draw water from red-coloured water tanks. A woman told us that she had to draw water five to ten times per day, adding that “it is not clean for drinking, it is only for cleaning and washing. ”

At one of the settlement tents we visited, the fan that was supposed to provide relief from the heat only succeeded in blowing hot air directly into our faces. Managing the extreme heat remains a key problem for residents in the camp, with access to fans severely limited.

Inside one settlement in Washokani camp [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]
Inside one of the settlements in the Washokani camp [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]

Challenges are currently being faced both inside and outside the camp. An urgent issue is the current water storage stemming not only from interruption to water state operations but also from the low rainfall during the wet season which was observed by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

Water levels in the Euphrates, the single largest source of freshwater in Syria and an important power source, began to decrease rapidly in early 2021. This was accompanied by a severe decline in access to clean water and electricity as well as a significant knock-on effect on agriculture which was noted by REACH. An initiative of the Geneva-based association IMPACT.

Agricultural instability 

Located in the geographical area known as the Fertile Crescent and lying mostly between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, NES produces several core products such as cotton and wheat whilst also being rich in crude oil. “After Islamic States (IS) was defeated [in 2019], the region experienced an economic boom”, said Alan Mohmed, an agricultural engineer. He added that “the biggest challenge for agriculture is the Turkish threat. People in Rojava don’t need help, but they need stability.”

According to the Rojava Information Centre (RIC), a media outlet based in NES. Turkey escalated its shelling and drone attacks against the region immediately following the Tehran tripartite meeting in July in which Iran and Russia refused to greenlight Erdoğan’s calls for a new invasion of NES. So far, Turkish attacks have caused 75 civilian casualties, with at least seven children being killed and 27 injured. 

The US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a defence force formed during the Syrian civil war and primarily formed of Kurdish, Arab, and other ethnic groups – has increasingly become the target of Turkish drone attacks. 

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Turkey, a NATO member on relatively good terms with Russia, sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a militant political organisation and armed guerrilla movement, mainly based in the mountainous Kurdish-majority regions of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.

Due to nearly 40-year military campaigns in Turkey, the PKK has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US, Turkey and the EU. Erdoğan has long stated his aim to create a 32-kilometre-deep “safe zone” in NES in response to perceived threats from YPG and to “relocate a million Syrian refugees to the zone from Turkey”. In the meantime Russia, still wanting to keep a foot in the Syrian door, maintains its relationship with Turkey.

“This year, I think Turkey will continue a lot of drone attacks,” said Dastan Jasim, a doctoral fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, stating that “the possibility of full invasion by Turkey before its national election will also depend on where Russia stands.”

She argues that the only possibility of ending Turkey’s “militaristic election campaign” in NES is with the EU and US finding a way to connect this issue with the current economic problems faced by Turkey. In this context, she stated that “it is not like there has never been an institutional precedent where Turkey was forced to sit at the table to negotiate.” whilst at the same time admitting that the EU and US foreign policy has often focused on solving things in a short-term manner.” 

"Water is weaponised by states and non-state actors [in the Syrian conflict], because they all mobilised water or the infrastructures around water distribution to leverage power over their counterparts"

According to AANES, both Zeynep Saroxan and Yilmaz Shero, co-chairs of the Justice and Reform Office, were killed in a Turkish drone strike on September 27. This was the 81st drone strike this year and, according to the data compiled by RIC, constituted an “explicit attack” on key civilian workers in AANES’ leadership. 

The female politician Zeynep Saroxan played an important role in establishing the Women’s Council of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the ruling party in NES.

Aram Hanna, a spokesperson for the SDF said in an interview with The New Arab that “the Turkish occupation is trying to discourage us by committing this crime against our honoured female leaders. The SDF will do whatever it takes to defend our people and homeland.” It was reported that earlier in July three female SDF fighters had been killed by Turkish strikes, their number including commander Jian Tolhildan who had won international fame in leading the fight against IS in 2017. 

The constant fear of regular Turkish airstrikes has severely destabilised the agricultural sector, especially in the border area. According to the co-chair of the Economy and Agriculture Board at the Autonomous Administration Salman Baroudo, “there were 144,000 hectares considered arable land” in Ras al-Ayn of al-Hasakah Governorate, which was captured by the Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army during 2019.

“Our silos and warehouses which had wheat, barley, cotton, and corn all were looted after the [capture],” he added, stating that “farmers are always afraid of being shot and in danger of being killed by Turkish Gendarmerie while they are cultivating their lands.”

The water crisis

Syria’s water crisis has been going on for over four decades. The renewed Turkish incursion, as well as the effects of climate change, pointed out by observers, have only exacerbated the protracted water issue. 

The Jaghagh River in Qamishli – the large Kurdish-majority city on the Syrian-Turkish border – stems from two rivers in Turkey. “The river’s flow has been cut from upstream and sewage water has been dumped from Nusaybin [a Turkish city]”, claimed the engineer Mohmed. 

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its General Directorate of Water Management did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment on the specific allegations made by people interviewed for this article. But the authority stated that its use of transboundary rivers is based on the principle that each riparian state of a transboundary river system has the “sovereign right” to make use of the water in its territory without causing “significant harm” to other riparian countries. 

The self-administration says that Turkey has broken the Water Quota Agreement made in 1987, between Syria, Turkey and Iraq. According to the deal, Syria is supposed to receive “500 cubic metres per second” from the Euphrates. However, according to the Tabqa dam manager Walat Darwish, “Turkey has cut the river flow from upstream and the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates only receives 200 or 230 cubic metres per second”.

Darwish said in an interview with The New Arab that the reason for the decline in the water supply in Rojava was “the Turkish economic war aimed at emptying the region of its inhabitants.” 

He explained that in the headwater region in Turkey, the river flow is expected to exceed 35 billion cubic metres this year, corresponding to more than 1100 cubic metres per second. 

He added that the amount of power produced by the dam is 114 Megawatts per hour. Although it is not the region’s only power source (there is another station that runs on gas which supplies power to the far east side of Rojava), the entire region is still suffering from limited electricity supply which does not exceed six hours of power per day.

In a hot and dry area like Rojava, “electricity plays an essential role in people’s lives in terms of securing drinking water, irrigating agricultural lands and upkeeping fisheries,” he said, adding that “the lack of electricity affects all aspects of life, especially in extreme heat.”

Reduced water levels can be easily identified from the watermarks left on the Tabqa Dam [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]
Reduced water levels can be easily identified from the watermarks left on the Tabqa Dam [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]

It has been reported that Turkey and its affiliated factions in the Syrian National Army (SNA) have been blocking water pumped from the Alouk Water Station. This has resulted in the longest water cut-off since 2019. 

The frustrations of the water crisis are exemplified by the experience of Mariyam Ahmed. The 24-year-old, hailing from the village of Hilwa Bani Saba’a on the outskirts of Qamishli, had moved back to her village from Damascus to a rented house in Qamishli in 2016 because of the “dry season”. She said, “there is no rain and every year the harvest is getting smaller.”

This was confirmed by iMMAP, an NGO which has compared results between the summer and winter cropping seasons in 2020 and 2021 across governorates in NES.

According to their findings, 18 sub-districts within NES recorded losses of over 75% in harvested crop areas, 13 of which were in Al-Hasakah Governorate. The study has also estimated this issue to impact an estimated 60,087 people who rely on agriculture for their livelihood. 

The dam manager said that “the lack of resources and low river levels have led to many irrigation pumping stations going out of service. If the situation continues at the same pace, tens of thousands of hectares of land will deteriorate due to the lack of water and this could lead to desertification.”

He stated that all that the self-administration could do now was to develop plans for the operation of the dams to suit this low water intake, ensuring that the dams continue to operate at a minimum level to secure the water necessary for irrigation and drinking as “a priority to preserve lives.”

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“The self-administration in NES has missed many opportunities to manage its water resources properly,” said a representative from PAX, an International NGO which has offices in Al-Hasakah and Qamishli. They added that “the water issue is a mixed result of policy, Turkey’s impact, and climate change.”

Marwa Daoudy, a professor at Georgetown University and former lecturer at the Graduate Institute in Geneva pointed out in a previous article earlier that water “was weaponised by states and non-state actors [in the Syrian conflict] because they all mobilised water or the infrastructures around water distribution to leverage power over their counterparts.”

The impact on women

Since 2011, Kurdish forces have been fighting IS while simultaneously trying to maintain a communal-based social structure.

Women in Rojava have been much involved in the war against IS, especially in terms of their gender-targeted violence.  “There has also been a gender-specific resistance from women in Rojava, Jasim said. “Out of one of the worst moments in the region for women, the empowerment of women and girls has flourished.” 

Although the Rojava model is built on the principle of gender equality, power imbalance and restrictive gender norms still persist. “Several institutions have been founded in recent years which seek to offer access to education for women,” Jasim said. 

But they face even more challenges in the summer than in other times of the year.  

Raniyah Mohamad, 17, from a village in the countryside of Tirbisbyah, now works at a small cleaning supplies factory in the industrial area of Qamishli. 

“I moved to Qamishli three months ago because of the dry season. There was no more water for our crops,” she said. “I used to work in the fields, harvesting crops like cotton and cumin. But we had a very poor harvest last year, so most of us in the village decided to move to the city to work in factories” she added. 

The industrial city of Qamishli hosts many internal migrants like Raniyah. The 17-year-old Wa’ad Al-Khider, born in the village of Boyer Abo Assia on the outskirts of Qamishli, said that all of her family moved to the city around a year ago because of the high living costs since the crash of the Syrian currency.

“As a result, our work in agriculture couldn’t pay the bills anymore,” she said. “Out of 300 families in my village around half of them moved. Some went to Syrian coastal cities like Tartous, others to Qamishli, and some went abroad,” she added.

Iman Ahmed, in the eggplant fields near Qamishli camp [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]
Iman Ahmed, in the eggplant fields near Qamishli camp [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]

According to Nizar Ghane, Director of Research and Co-founder of Triangle (team leader of a study on the impact of drought on women’s livelihood in Al-Hasakah and Ar-Raqqa in NES), the loss of jobs in the agricultural sector in this war-torn region is pushing women to find alternative ways to make ends meet. 

Ghane said that “distance to water is a key factor,” adding that “we have found through 337 surveys carried out in Al-Hasakah and Ar-Raqqa that women spend three hours on average per day in procuring water.”

He explained that men in the two governorates also spend 3.5 hours on average per day on this task, but they do not usually have to take care of additional family duties”. 

Triangle’s study suggested that the more time women spend accessing water resources, the less time they can devote to agriculture and family duties, leading to possible tensions with their husbands.

“Climate change and drought in Rojava affects women and men, but it has more impact on women for reasons related to the customs and traditions of our society,” said a spokesperson from Syrian NGO Nextep.

The NGO explained that poverty, as a result of the collapse in farming, has prevented many families from sending their children to schools, especially girls because they are needed to work in the fields. The unclean water also affects the health of pregnant women. 

The NGO further suggests that women in rural populations which rely on agriculture are disproportionately affected, stating that “women in the cities are more aware and knowledgeable than those in the rural areas.” 

Most of the women, including Alva Ali, a civil activist in peacebuilding, testified that the summer heat affected them both physically and psychologically. They reported feeling that women were more affected by the water crisis due to physical burdens as well as extra family duties. A female researcher suggested that self-administration is needed to improve awareness to prevent disease.

The clinic in Washokani – a camp managed by the Kurdish Red Crescent – said that diarrhoea is the most common case in summer, with a rate of about 20% to 30% of paediatric patients. “There are cases of gynaecological infections among female patients, most of which are the result of poor hygiene,” the clinic said. 

Humanitarian NGO CARE found that parents had reported increased psychological stress due to feeling unable to feed their children, as well as stress felt by women due to the fear of domestic violence. Its report states that the water crisis is also impacting access to menstrual hygiene products, as well as safe access to latrines and that higher-than-usual rates of acute diarrhoea are being reported.

Smoke rising from local oil refineries, Northeast Syria [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]
Smoke rising from local oil refineries in northeast Syria [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]

Water shortages. Crippling heat. Drone attacks. These are only some of the torments faced by women who are forced to leave their homes. 

There are between 140 to 160 factories in Qamishli which are estimated to employ 2500 workers in total, with most of them hailing from the nearby countryside.  

Dara Shekhmous is the manager of Omari Chips and Biscuits Co. The factory was founded in 1995 and most of its workers are women. She said that since the Syrian war started they have suffered extreme disruption to their business operations.

"We have had to shut down a couple of times since 2014, either for security reasons or financial reasons like four months ago,” she said. 

She mentioned that the Caesar Syrian Protection Act – the most wide-ranging scheme of US sanctions ever directed against Syria that went into effect on June 19, 2020 – had an immense impact on jobs and living costs. In an official recent exchange rate adjustment by the Syrian government, the Syrian pound lost around seven percent of its value against the US dollar. The last time the Syrian pound traded at 47 to the dollar was in 2011.

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"We are functioning at only 20% of our total capacity – I have had to let many of our workers go during the past months and I’ve kept only ten female workers for product packaging,” Shekhumous said, adding that “there is no support for our business from AANES.”

The unavailability of raw materials, doubly-charged custom fees and an unstable currency, together with sanctions challenge the very survival of these factories, where many women had migrated from the countryside to seek better employment opportunities. 

The way forward 

Humanitarian actors have repeatedly warned the international community of the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the context of the Syrian conflict and water crisis. However, international attention, as well as funding, is shifting towards other more high-profile wars, like the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

The camp of Al Hol, which the self-administration accuses of being a “hotbed” for IS, hosts more than 55,000 people, with 90% being women and children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – which runs the field hospital with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in this camp, told The New Arab that “in the summer, temperatures can reach more than  45 °C and the feeling of heat is hardly bearable even for a few minutes. The muddy ground turns hard and parched, and the wind brings gusts of dust into everything.” 

“Families stay in their tents, even if it is uncomfortably hot inside, to avoid the scorching sun; children sit under the stands holding the water tanks just for some shade. It’s unimaginable that people live like that day in and day out,” said a spokesperson from ICRC. 

Al-Roj camp in Northeast Syria, now home to over 2,500 residents with alleged ties to IS, Over half of the camp residents are children [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]
The Al-Roj camp in northeast Syria is now home to over 2,500 residents with alleged ties to IS. Over half of the camp residents are children [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]

All the NGOs interviewed testify that war-torn countries like Syria lack the capacity to collect related data systematically, which makes assessing the impact of environmental issues more difficult.

Daoudy earlier stressed that it is also important for policymakers to understand that the most dangerous environmental stresses and scarcity outcomes in the region are caused by short-term decisions and actions taken by powerful individuals and institutions, while the effect of climate change is hard to control. 

“It is in the end not a humanitarian issue, but a political issue,” Jasim commented. “None of the issues can be tackled only nationally but internationally.”

The new city-dweller Raniyah wants to stay in Qamishli. She said “in the city, we are more independent and we are learning new skills,” adding that “I will not go back to the village because the service and quality of life are better here.” 

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In spite of the process of urbanisation in NES, the large population of this region still relies heavily on farming, cultivating livestock, and fishing. 

Mohmed suggested that new types of crops adapted to local conditions were being developed by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). He said that the vast majority of the region’s irrigation needs come from rainfall, with only a small fraction being met by wells.

Digging the wells – a process which relies on the heavy fuel consumption of digging machinery – is even more difficult in light of the current fuel crisis. “We need to develop some types of crops which are more resistant to blight and in need of less water,” he added, adding that “in the meantime, we should depend on alternative energy sources such as solar.”

When asked “what does the Euphrates river mean to you”, 32-year-old Nader Hamid responded “My whole life.” He now has to walk an extra 5 to 10 km to access areas where grass grows to feed his buffalo. His family, including his wife and mother, are helping him with the small business. The buffalo milk and buffalo cheese will be sold at the market. 

Nader Hamid and his buffalos at the Euphrates [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]
Nader Hamid and his buffalos at the Euphrates [photo credit: Yiyao Yang]

In this region where conflicts exacerbated the pre-existing gender inequality and vulnerabilities, improving the infrastructures and government support for vulnerable farmers and enhancing the rural communities’ resilience is more urgent than ever.

Although the Kurdish women’s movement is striving to empower women, the gender imbalance experienced by different populations is not the same. “There is no gender equality here,” said the 17-year-old Iman. In light of the continued willing and forced migration, the inadequate support system may increase the risk of traumatic experiences, especially for women. 

The queue at the border crossing of Semalka-Fishkhabour between Kurdistan and NES becomes longer during European holidays. Kurds who live in Germany, Denmark, and many other European countries come back to Rojava to visit their families during these periods.  

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The travellers’ often oversized luggage is loaded onto a truck. On the other side of the crossing, the greasy oil dripping from a cheese container leaves stains on most of the suitcases. 

This border crossing will probably remain open as an important outlet for transport, trade, and the provision of aid. On the other side of the checkpoint lies the place where people are allowed to reunite with their families, to work, and to live a life.

Those who do not have the means to leave are forced to remain in Syria, now in its 11th year of war.  

Yiyao Yang is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Beirut. She writes on politics, contemporary art, and the climate in Lebanon and the region. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Yiyao79194046

With additional reporting by Khabat Abbas

Follow her on Twitter: @khabat_abas