HASAKAH — In early October, Turkey launched a military operation against northeastern Syria targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as well as oil facilities and civil service centers belonging to the SDF-backed Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
Turkey’s bombardment of northeastern Syria began after the General Security Directorate of Ankara’s Ministry of Interior was attacked by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on October 1. Ankara views the SDF as an extension of the PKK.
Ankara’s strikes on infrastructure this month, including water and electricity stations, came at a time when SDF-held Hasakah city and the area around it was already facing a deep water shortage.
The city relies solely on the Alouk water station near the border city of Ras al-Ain, which Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) factions took control of in October 2019 as part of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring.
Hasakah city requires around 150,000 cubic meters of water per day, while it currently receives only around 1,000 cubic meters from the Alouk station, Issa Younes, the co-chair of the AANES’ General Directorate of Drinking Water in Hasakah said in July.
Before and after the 2011 Syrian revolution, the term “rationing” was typically associated with electricity. Today, in Hasakah city and neighboring areas, water is rationed too: both officially, as it is pumped for limited hours and in restricted quantities, and unofficially as residents manage their personal and household water use.
Siamand Muhammad, a 37-year-old resident of Hasakah, fled Ras al-Ain during Operation Peace Spring “to escape a shooting war, only to end up facing a water war,” he told Syria Direct.
This year, “the summer season was incredibly harsh, with temperatures soaring above 45 degrees [Celsius],” Muhammad, who teaches at an AANES-affiliated school in Hasakah, said. “Despite our dire need for water, securing it for drinking and daily use has been a constant struggle. Do you call this a life?”
Hasakah city, the town of Tal Tamar and around 54 villages rely on the Alouk station as their only source of drinking water. The flow of water has been cut off more than 36 times since Operation Peace Spring in 2019. Together, approximately one million people in these areas require between 82,000 and 100,000 cubic meters per day, according to figures Syria Direct obtained from a complaint local organizations submitted to the United Nations (UN) in September. Hasakah’s water crisis has also prompted the AANES to designate the city a disaster area.
During water outages from the Alouk station, Muhammad relies on water trucks to fill his home’s tanks. This is “costly for me, especially in the summer when I need to refill my 10-barrel tanks three times a week,” he said. One barrel of water costs SYP 10,000-15,000 (approximately $0.74 to $1.10 according to the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 13,550 to the dollar). He also buys “packages of mineral water packages for around $2 each.”
For Shaima, a 43-year-old teacher at a Syrian regime public school in Hasakah city, “bathing my children twice a week in the height of summer [was] enough given the current water crisis,” she told Syria Direct. She called the water situation “catastrophic,” as her neighborhood “is provided with water only one day a week, and sometimes even that day passes without water if it’s cut off at the source in Alouk.”
To conserve water, Shaima’s family “has started a rationing plan for bathing and using water,” she said. Like Muhammad, they “fill tanks from water trucks, paying SYP 30,000 [about $2.20] for each refill.”
The price of a barrel of water fluctuates from time to time, and varies between sellers. “We’re not sure where the trucked water comes from, and it’s not safe for drinking because the owners don’t sterilize the water tankers,” Shaima said.
In November 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that “Turkish authorities have failed to ensure an adequate water flow downstream into the Syrian-held portion of the Euphrates river and a consistent water supply from Alouk water station, a critical source of water.” The organization accused Ankara of “exacerbating an acute water crisis that is believed to have given rise to the deadly cholera outbreak spreading across Syria and into nearby countries.”
Confirming this, the head of the Syrian regime Health Directorate in Hasakah, Issa Khalaf, noted in a statement to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) last July, that “the city’s central medical center receives about 1,350 emergency cases of acute intestinal infections every month, with the majority being children. This is a result of the Turkish occupation cutting off drinking water to Hasakah and its neighboring areas.” Khalaf noted that “many families are forced to use unreliable water sources for drinking and household use, leading to a surge in diseases and infections.”
Four of Muhammad’s family members have fallen ill “with intestinal inflammation and severe diarrhea that required them to stay in the hospital overnight,” he said. Since then, he has relied on mineral water for drinking, which “strains my monthly income of about $50, but is necessary for my family’s health,” he said.
An employee from the Ashna for Development organization writes down information while family fills their water tank in Hasakah city, 09/06/2020, (Ashna for Development/Syria Direct)
After declaring Hasakah city a “disaster area” in July, Younes, co-chair of the AANES’ Water Directorate, said “we don’t have many options at a time when we should act immediately to find solutions.” He stressed the need for official agencies and humanitarian organizations to combine efforts “to mitigate the crisis’ severe impact.”
In support of thirsty Hasakah, local clans have launched a number of community initiatives to supply drinking water to the city’s residents, “in the absence of a response from international humanitarian organizations,” Hassan al-Qalam, an activist from Raqqa city who is volunteering with one of the initiatives, told Syria Direct.
“The campaign was launched out of a sense of duty to stand with the people of Hasakah city. We distributed 435 water tankers to 7,025 families” in July and August as an emergency response. They are also working to “drill 17 wells across the city, which is ongoing,” al-Qalam said.
Local organizations in Hasakah have also worked in recent years to provide solutions to the city’s persistent water crisis, but their initiatives often come up short of meeting the area’s needs, Sherzad Sedo, the executive director of local nonprofit Ashna for Development, told Syria Direct.
“They are often temporary solutions, and lack long-term sustainability,” Sedo said. “Periodic changes in [donor] organizations’ plans can also result in support for these projects being discontinued.”
Up until 2021, Ashna implemented a number of programs to address Hasakah’s water crisis. These included trucking water to households in the city’s al-Salhiya, al-Mufti and Khashman neighborhoods for nearly 320,000 people, Sedo said. Another, more sustainable, initiative focused on drilling 29 wells in al-Aziziya, al-Dahiya and Khashman neighborhoods, benefiting around 6,000 people.
Ashna’s projects were discontinued due to lack of funding in 2021, but Ashna began to truck water to Hasakah neighborhoods again two months ago as the city’s water crisis worsened.
Another challenge water support organizations face is “not being able to cover all residents in targeted neighborhoods, which leads to crowds and dissatisfaction in the streets targeted for water distribution,” Sedo said. “Official statistics indicate that Hasakah’s population exceeds one million, and they are all impacted by the water crisis.”
Alouk is the solution
Northeastern Syria relies on three water sources: rivers—historically the lifeblood of the region—alongside groundwater and rainwater. Approximately 4.8 million people, including one million displaced people, depend on these sources, according to a joint report by Hevdesti and the Malva for Arts and Culture organizations.
Turkey uses the Euphrates River—which originates in Turkey and flows through Syria for 600 kilometers before reaching Iraq—as a political pressure tool. In northeastern Syria, especially given the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a prominent faction within the SDF, Turkey has repeatedly weaponized water. Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the PKK.
Under a protocol agreement signed between Damascus and Ankara in 1987 Syria’s share of the Euphrates River is 500 cubic meters per second. However, since 2019, these quantities have at times dropped to 200 cubic meters per second. Reducing water flows “exacerbates the existing humanitarian crisis and leaves disastrous impacts on local communities and on the ecosystem, biodiversity, and cultural identity in northeast Syria,” according to Hevdesti and Malva.
Drought compounds the plight of Hasakah’s residents. In 2023, the province recorded rainfall rates 60 percent lower than the previous three years.
This past September, 110 Syrian organizations condemned the deprivation of civilians in northeastern Syria of “their right to access sufficient and safe water,” amid what they described as “the most severe drought in nearly 70 years, caused by climate change, reduced rainfall, high temperatures and the use of water as a weapon by parties to the conflict.” The organizations called upon the United Nations to intervene and work towards an urgent and sustainable resolution to the water crisis.
In July 2021, the UN called for “the resumption of water and electricity services and the protection of civilians’ access to water and sanitation,” urging “all parties to immediately provide safe passage and regular and unimpeded access for technical and humanitarian personnel so that Alouk water station can operate without further interruption.”
Still, the water crisis in Hasakah continues. In early August, the AANES launched a project to draw drinking water from the area south of the border town of Amuda towards the areas of Hasakah, Tal Tamar and nearby villages. The project is “the first of its kind and is among the most important, pioneering water sector projects because of its humanitarian, economic and social dimensions,” Younes of the AANES Water Directorate said at the time. The project seeks to supply clean drinking water for more than one million people in Hasakah and villages along the water line, he added.
Prior to this initiative, AANES’ response was limited to deploying 60 water tankers as a rapid “but insufficient solution that didn’t meet the city’s needs due to its high population density,” Younes from the Water Directorate said in July. Additionally, “there are around 700 operating private water tankers, with legal measures taken against owners in case of violations.”
Ashna for Development suggested several alternative solutions, including “drawing water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, drilling wells in water-rich areas near pumping facilities recently established by AANES and setting up desalination plants for well water,” Sedo told Syria Direct. However, “implementing these initiatives falls under the responsibility of the AANES and relevant authorities in the area,” as local organizations do not have the capacity to implement them.
“The solution is pumping water from the Alouk station, since it is a strategic solution specifically designed to supply the area with water,” Abbas Ali Moussa, a principal researcher at Hevdesti, told Syria Direct. “All the other projects, whether drawing water for the Euphrates or digging wells, are not sustainable solutions, and do not cover the region’s long-term needs,” he added.
Moussa underlined the need to “continuously operate the Alouk station, and for it not to be impacted by political considerations on the part of all parties [to the conflict], as it represents the best solution to resolve the water crisis in the area.”
As winter sets in, “some people believe the water situation will get better compared to summer, but things won’t change much,” Shaima said. “We may be able to ration more, but the cost of obtaining water from tankers will not go down.”
*Minor edits were made on 26/10/2023 to information provided by one source cited in this report, in response to security concerns.
This report was produced as part of the second phase of Syria Direct’s MIRAS Training Program, in coordination with Ashna for Development. It was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nouhaila Aguergour.