Bleeding the river dry: Polluted rivers fuel rampant cholera in northeast Syria

Cholera Syria
8 min read
In northeast Syria, rampant cholera is compounded by chronic wastewater woes.

On a sunny afternoon, a dozen agricultural workers harvest eggplants on the outskirts of the city of Qamishli, in northeastern Syria.

The women’s gloved hands dip between the bright leaves, avoiding blooming flowers to pick only the ripe, light-purple vegetables that will soon fill the isles of the local souk.

Makdous season is in full swing: soon, thousands of preserved eggplants will fill the pantries of Syrian kitchens for the year to come.

"Cholera has already claimed at least 60 lives and reached thirteen of the country’s fourteen governorates, in addition to refugee camps in Lebanon"

But this idyllic picture crumbles at the edge of the field, where dark water stagnates between two steep heaps of trash. A thick stench rises from the riverbed – clogged with black sediments, decomposing plastic bags, and waste of all sorts.

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This is the Jaghjagh River, which flows year-round from springs on Tor Abidin mountain in eastern Turkey to the Turkish city of Nusaybin, crossing northern Syria from Qamishli to al-Hasakah city and watering fields on the way until meeting the Khabour River, a tributary of the Euphrates.

Several engines pump water from the Jaghjagh river to the nearby vegetable fields. [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]
Several engines pump water from the Jaghjagh river to the nearby vegetable fields [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

The grim sight of the Jaghjagh is particularly upsetting in the current context, more than a month into Syria’s first cholera epidemic since 2009.

Cholera has already claimed at least 60 lives and reached thirteen of the country’s fourteen governorates, in addition to refugee camps in Lebanon. Reliable data is scarce, but the World Health Organization says 13,000 cases are suspected – a figure that may be severely underestimated.

Cholera is a deadly diarrhoeal disease that emerges and spreads through contaminated water. Outbreaks typically occur in overcrowded environments with limited access to clean water.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the illness should plague Syria eleven years after the start of a brutal civil war that destroyed much of its infrastructure, left millions displaced in camps, and exacerbated pre-existing water pollution issues.

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A river of waste

Once upon a time, Qamishli must have been filled with reeds – locally known as qamish, a plant that probably gave its name to the city. But most of the reeds are long gone.

Downtown, the river struggles to flow between islands of waste – plastic bags, soda cans, and empty bottles. At regular intervals along the banks, pipes sprouting out of houses release thin streams of sewage, feeding the river below.

The only remaining sign of what may once have been the Jaghjagh’s rich ecosystem are a handful of black turtles, who sometimes slip out from under the bridges to sunbathe.

Turtles are among the few remaining signs of life in the Jaghjagh River. [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]
Turtles are among the few remaining signs of life in the Jaghjagh River [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

The municipality periodically carries out a cleaning campaign to pull trash out of the riverbed, and fines businesses that are found dumping their sewage in the river. But in the absence of any wastewater treatment plant, these efforts to tackle pollution are symbolic at best.

Despite the foul smell, Angele Kasparian, a 72-years-old resident of Qamishli, likes to sit on her balcony and watch the river “flow”. Like many of her neighbours, she complains of this pollution that attracts flies, rodents, and insects, and is worried about catching cholera. But the sight under her balcony is nothing new.

"Unfortunately, Jaghjagh’s case is emblematic of Syria’s chronic water pollution issues – fed by a mix of complex factors including a lack of infrastructure, war, drought, and pressure on transboundary water resources from neighbouring Turkey"

“I have been living here for over 40 years and the river has always been like this,” Angele’s sister-in-law told The New Arab. “People have always been throwing their trash in the river. What makes it worse now is that the water level has dropped because of Turkey.”

Weaponizing water

Over the past twenty years, Turkey has built a series of 22 dams upstream of Syria and Iraq to boost its own irrigation capacity. Water levels have been dropping in Syrian rivers as a Turkish dam filled, compounding pollution issues as the concentration of pollutants in water increased.

The Jaghjagh River is among those affected. Google Earth imagery shows that instead of running straight into Qamishli, it is withheld by several dams and diverted into a long irrigation canal that runs parallel to the Syrian border, watering Turkish fields on the other side.

The decreasing flow of transboundary rivers has long been denounced by officials of the Autonomous Administration of North and Eastern Syria (AANES), the Kurdish-led de-facto government of northeastern Syria, who accuse Turkey of weaponizing water.

“Turkey continues to wage water war against northeastern Syria, digging deep wells, building dams upstream of shared rivers, cutting off our water to use it as a weapon, and diverting its sewage into our rivers,” Sleman Arab, the co-chair of the AANES’ Department of Municipalities and Environment in the Jazira region, told The New Arab.

One emblematic case of this policy is that of the Alouk water station, controlled since 2019 by Turkish-backed factions of the Syrian opposition. Water supply from Alouk is episodically cut for days on end without apparent reasons, causing massive water shortages in the city of Hasakeh and surrounding IDP camps, affecting up to 1.5 million people.

Angele Kasparian, 72, likes to sit on her balcony overlooking the Jaghjagh River in downtown Qamishli. [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]
Angele Kasparian, 72, likes to sit on her balcony overlooking the Jaghjagh River in downtown Qamishli [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

But the Jaghjagh’s pollution problem doesn’t originate just in Turkey: only 24 kilometres of its path runs across Turkish land, where it probably picks up sewage from the city of Nusaybin.

Yet over the remaining 100 kilometres of its course, until it meets the Khabour, the Jaghjagh encounters many other sources of untreated municipal, industrial and agricultural waste, this time in Syria.

Neither is it really new: a recent study showed that in 2012 and 2013, its water was already below the Syrian government’s standards to be used for irrigation.

There were also significant variations in pollution types and levels between sampling points along the river – one of which was right after the Turkish border, the second inside Qamishli city, and the third in an industrial area downstream of Qamishli. So, while the water entering Syria from Turkey could not then be considered “clean”, untreated municipal and industrial sewage within Syria was already an issue.

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Growing disinterest

Whatever its cause, rising pollution tends to feed into a vicious cycle where people get used to the situation, feel increasingly powerless to act, and are less and less inclined to seek accountability.

Many Qamishli residents who spoke to The New Arab harboured no hopes to solve the river’s pollution crisis, seen as the responsibility of local authorities alone. Many even admitted that they directly contributed to making it worse. “All of us here throw our trash in the river,” a woman living in downtown Qamishli acknowledged, blaming “insufficient” municipal services to collect trash.

In addition to garbage and wastewater, the Jaghjagh is likely contaminated by less visible and even more dangerous types of pollution – toxic chemicals dumped into the sewage system, paint residues, solvents, cooking oils, pesticides and fertilizers running off from nearby fields, industrial waste.

But this does not stop people from using it for irrigation. “We know that the water is not clean, but the vegetables turn out fine,” Ahmad*, who manages the field of eggplants on the outskirts of the city, told The New Arab.

At his side, one of the daily workers added: “We have been eating our vegetables for years, and never faced any problem.” Other farmers continue to bring their black buffaloes – gentle animals, prized across northeastern Syria for their rich milk and thick cream – to the river, where they spend hours a day in black puddles of stagnant water.

Buffaloes resting under a bridge in the outskirts of Qamishli [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]
Buffaloes resting under a bridge on the outskirts of Qamishli [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

On September 19, 2022, nine days after the start of the cholera outbreak, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) issued an order outlawing the irrigation of crops from “contaminated” sources, including the Jaghjagh River. But the practice continues, in part because there are no economically viable alternatives.

Farmers across Syria are struggling to make a living. In all conversations, the same challenges invariably pop up: the high price of fuel, needed to power irrigation systems and machinery, the skyrocketing cost of fertilizers, and the lack of rain.

Ahmad is among the lucky ones: to water 40 dunums of land, he only needs about five litres of fuel per day to operate a water pump along the river. Others who don’t have access to a river need to dig wells, purchase trucked water, and buy more fuel for irrigation.

A bridge over the Jaghjagh River in downtown Qamishli [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]
A bridge over the Jaghjagh River in downtown Qamishli [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

War woes

Unfortunately, Jaghjagh’s case is emblematic of Syria’s chronic water pollution issues – fed by a mix of complex factors including a lack of infrastructure, war, drought, and pressure on transboundary water resources from neighbouring Turkey.

This pollution has been dramatically exacerbated by eleven years of war. Although all water sources were not clean and wastewater treatment capacity was not optimal, prior to the conflict 98% of Syrians had access to clean water.

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Today, only 50% of water and sanitation systems are still working properly. Hundreds of water facilities have been intentionally targeted and destroyed during the war, forcing more and more people to rely on contaminated rivers, including the Euphrates and its tributaries.

The only solution to save Syrian rivers is to invest in wastewater treatment plants, in order to keep the water suitable for irrigation if not for drinking.

But today, with the country divided into three areas of control, with frequent Russian and regime bombing campaigns still taking place over northwest Syria, and tensions between Turkey and the Kurdish-led AANES at a peak, this is hardly a priority.

*The name of some interviewees have been changed to protect their identity

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais

Solin Muhammed Amin is a freelance journalist and researcher. She covers conflict, war and terrorism, with a focus on Syria. 

Follow her on Twitter: @solin_amin