The Syrian civil war has been ongoing for over 12 years. During this time, the population has suffered greatly from violence and oppression by warring parties, as well as economic hardship and diseases due to the gradual deterioration of the economy and essential services. In parts of Syria, notably the Turkish- and rebel-held northwest, ongoing violence is still regularly killing civilians. In the Kurdish-controlled northeast, the security situation had been relatively stable for several years, but Deir ez-Zor was recently wracked by violence as Arab tribes rose up against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); elsewhere in the region, the widespread destruction caused by years of conflict is still palpable. Things are little better in the rest of the country, controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, with the economy in freefall and anti-government protests once again spreading in the south.
The United Nations estimates that, for the first time since the start of the conflict, Syrians in every sub-region of the country are currently experiencing humanitarian stress. Indeed, in 2022, 15 million out of Syria’s population of 22 million were in need of humanitarian assistance and 12 million were considered food insecure, mainly in the opposition-held north. These numbers have only increased due to the earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey in February 2023, killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands more in northwest Syria. The humanitarian situation has been further exacerbated by the U.N. Security Council’s failure to reach a consensus in July on extending cross-border aid to the northwest through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, and a subsequent deal with the Syrian government has resulted in a sharp decline in the delivery of aid. As the humanitarian, political, and economic challenges in Syria are occurring simultaneously with increasingly hot and dry summers, conflict- and climate-related factors have compounded, resulting in the emergence of a so-called “triple water crisis.”
Back to back droughts
The Syrian triple water crisis reflects three crises centered on water resource reliability across the country. The first crisis revolves around the consecutive droughts that have plagued the region for the past three summers, during which time it has seen up to 60% less rainfall. The last time such regular droughts occurred was in the years leading up to the start of the civil war in 2011. Since 2021, Syria has again been experiencing record high temperatures, causing widespread wildfires and droughts. In the context of a crumbling economy and lack of government support, the effect on Syria’s strongly agriculture-driven economy has been devastating. Food insecurity had already been rising dramatically since the start of the conflict. Before 2011, Syria was self-sustaining in wheat production, growing 4.1 million tons annually. But vast swathes of land have been burned or destroyed during the fighting, making fields unusable. The wider economic crisis caused by the war has left many farmers unable to feed their livestock or invest in their crops. Today, Syria’s wheat production stands at 2.2 million tons per year, making it a net importer. This situation has been particularly striking in northeast Syria, historically considered the country’s breadbasket and the main source of its wheat production.
Declining flow on the Euphrates
The second crisis is the sharp decline in the water level of the Euphrates River. Originating in Turkey and flowing through Syria and Iraq into the Persian Gulf, this river and its tributaries represent the main water source for over 5 million people across Syria. But the Euphrates’ flow has hit dangerously low levels for three summers in a row. The majority of its water comes from the Armenian highlands, where several years of precipitation shortfalls are causing a long-term reduction in the river flow. Decreased precipitation and hotter climate conditions are expected to lead to a 23.5% decrease in river flow by the end of the century as compared to the 2000s.
Another factor correlating with the third consecutive year of reduced river flow is political. Turkey has been accused of restricting the flow of water at the border with Syria since 2021 — with consequences for both Syria’s and Iraq’s access. Syria and Turkey have a water-sharing agreement dating back to 1987, which guarantees Syria an average of 500 million cubic meters of water per second, but the amount of water arriving from Turkey has decreased to under 300 million cubic meters per second since January 2021. This timeframe has coincided both with the start of the droughts and with Turkey’s attempts at reining in Kurdish forces in northern Syria, making it likely that water is at least partly withheld for tactical reasons. Turkey has denied any responsibility for the severe reduction in river flow, pointing to the droughts it has itself been experiencing.
The impact of water shortages on agriculture, livestock, and food security has two main consequences. First, the shortage is affecting broader public services, as some of the key hydroelectric dams along the Euphrates are nearly reaching “dead level” — the minimum water level to produce electricity, with huge consequences for Syria’s already faltering electricity production. Second, problems with water quantity are leading to issues of water quality. As the Euphrates carries less water, the concentration of harmful pollutants in the water, and consequently the incidence of waterborne and water-related diseases, increases. This worsened water quality is one of the main causes for the recent resurgence and spread of diseases in Syria, such as the ongoing cholera epidemic that broke out in September 2022.
Potable water crisis
The third element in the triple water crisis is largely linked to the conflict: the malfunctioning of Alouk Water Station, located in northeast Syria, near the Turkish border, and on which half a million people are dependent as their primary potable water source. In October 2019, the Turkish armed forces and the Syrian National Army launched a military offensive, Operation Peace Spring, which created a buffer zone of 19 miles (30 kilometers) against the SDF along the Syrian-Turkish border. Alouk Water Station is now part of this buffer zone. Since 2020, Alouk has regularly been out of service, with disastrous consequences for the access to potable water of people in the region. The Kurds blame the Turks, saying they are purposefully withholding water to the Kurdish-led region. The Turks point to technical failures as a consequence of the electricity crisis that impede Alouk’s proper functioning. Lack of transparency and oversight makes it difficult to assess the true causes. What is certain, however, is that the issue is highly politicized and feeding into the conflict dynamics, and that the entire northeast region of Syria has been unable to rely on Alouk for three years. Deprived of their main water source, people have turned to alternatives, mainly boreholes. But this has been leading to alarming over-extraction of groundwater and the lowering of aquifer water levels, which had already been dropping in recent decades. In addition, there are serious concerns regarding the quality of the water in these boreholes and associated health risks from drinking it.
The triple water crisis in Syria shows that, in conflict, the environment itself becomes political. By contributing to the depletion of the Euphrates and other water sources, droughts amplify the already difficult situation of millions of Syrians across the country. Water is not a standalone resource — it is linked with food security, economic security, health, and the continuity of critical public services. As an essential resource, water is also an attractive target for control, leverage, and competitive advantage during conflict. The Alouk Water Station crisis would not have been as devastating for people living in northeast Syria if they had sufficient, viable alternatives.
When the environment becomes a factor in conflict, its protection is no longer a priority. Years of war have left their mark on Syrian ecosystems, as water resources and fields have been contaminated by land mines and explosive remnants of war, and natural habitats caught in conflict zones have been destroyed. Syria has lost 20% of its tree cover since the start of the conflict, with drought-driven wildfires accounting for further reductions in recent years. The climate-related causes of the triple water crisis will not recede in the coming years, as Syria becomes drier and hotter. The only way forward in this crisis requires a political willingness to reprioritize human and environmental well-being, but thus far the track record of doing so has not been promising.
Megan Ferrando is a Non-Resident Scholar with the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute. She is currently based in Jordan, working for a humanitarian NGO’s Syria mission.
Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images
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