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In thirsty Daraa, uncontrolled well drilling drives groundwater deeper

Across Daraa province, groundwater is receding deeper into the earth. On top of climate factors like rising temperatures and fluctuating or delayed rainfall, human activity is taking a toll: Thousands of unlicensed wells have been drilled in recent years due to a lack of state oversight and a struggling public water network.


26 July 2023

PARIS — In the parched plains outside the southern Syrian city of Jassim, Farhan Abu Muhammad (a pseudonym) drilled his well deeper this year. To water his farmland, he needed to improve his well’s flow rate, after it decreased last summer from around 20 cubic meters per hour to 15. 

Today, Abu Muhammad’s artesian well—a well that brings groundwater to the surface using natural pressure rather than pumping—sinks 205 meters into the earth. This year was the second time he has addressed a weak flow by deepening the well. 

Abu Muhammad was one of three farmers who told Syria Direct reduced water levels have recently forced them to increase the depth of their artesian wells in Daraa province. 

Groundwater levels are receding across Daraa, local experts and government officials confirmed. They attributed the decline to climate factors—including high temperatures and fluctuating or delayed rainfall—as well as human activity such as the rampant digging of unregulated artesian wells.

Exploiting chaos

In the absence of centralized control in Daraa following the 2011 Syrian revolution, many people seized the opportunity to drill wells of their own without the need for state approval. In previous decades, farmers could not drill wells without permits and security approvals from Damascus. But permits were hard to come by without paying bribes to regime officials. 

Today, there are an estimated 25,000 artesian wells in Daraa, compared to fewer than 8,000 before 2011, a water engineer who has been monitoring the province’s water for more than 30 years told Syria Direct, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

There are no precise figures pointing to the number of unregulated wells in Daraa, but “the number of unauthorized wells has multiplied dozens of times over what it was before the crisis,” an official at the regime-affiliated Daraa Directorate of Water Resources said. His directorate has surveyed only a portion of the wells that exist, he added. 

Read more: Unsustainable water pumping in Syria’s northwest spells trouble for coming generations

At the start of July, Umm Mahmoud, 55, drilled one such well on her land in Inkhil, a city north of the provincial capital. Her 200-meter well cost $85 per meter, $17,000 in total. 

She did not obtain a permit to drill it because “the requirements are difficult and expensive,” she told Syria Direct. And, at the moment, “there’s no state scrutiny.”

Through the well, Umm Mahmoud aims to “profit from the land” on which she previously sowed only rain-fed crops such as wheat, barley and legumes. With water flowing from the well, she also plans to convert part of her land to “a grape and pomegranate orchard.”

Umm Muhammad also has the option to rent out “the well and the land surrounding it” for a yearly fee, or to “sell tanks of drinking water.” The price for one tanker truck of water ranges from SYP 50,000 to SYP 70,000 ($3.90 to $5.40 according to the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 12,820 to the dollar).

رجل يقف أمام حفارة آبار في مدينة إنخل شمال درعا، أثناء حفر بئر ضمن مبادرة شعبية لتوفير مياه الشرب، 06/ 04 / 2023 (مدينتي إنخل)

A man stands in front of a drilling rig outside Daraa’s Inkhil city while drilling a well as part of a community-funded initiative to supply drinking water, 6/4/2023 (My City Inkhil)

Drilling deeper

Five years ago, Salim Abu Aqab (a pseudonym), the owner of an artesian well rig, began to notice that he had to drill deeper and deeper to reach groundwater in the al-Jidour area of northwestern Daraa where he works. The area includes the cities and towns of Inkhil, Jassim, al-Hara, Nawa, al-Sanamayn, Kafr Shams and others. 

Before 2018, water flowed at a depth of 90 meters, or 150 meters in the worst case. “We reached this depth very few times,” Abu Aqab recalled. Now, he drills between 150 and 210 meters down to reach water. Sometimes, “the water might not come out, which is a loss of at least $17,000 for the farmer,” he told Syria Direct.

At the same time, the phenomenon of needing to increase the depth of an already existing well has increased, due to reduced water flows. Increases needed range between “10 and 25 meters of depth,” he said.

Drilling unpermitted wells, Abu Aqab works under cover of night to avoid detection by the security services. But he occasionally works “under their auspices,”he said, in exchange for bribes paid to Criminal Security and the Daraa Irrigation Directorate. He also pays around SYP 2 million ($162) at each checkpoint he crosses with his rig, he said. 

“Drilling depths have increased from 100 to more than 250 meters in Daraa,” the water engineer said. Deeper wells can mean “water leakage” from one layer of groundwater to another, which “affects the groundwater that feeds springs” above ground, he warned. 

In western Daraa, for example, “wells used to have a static water level [the level of water without drawing or pumping water, measured by the distance between the surface of the ground and the groundwater] of between 50 and 70 meters, but today the level is between 120 and 150 meters,” the engineer added. 

Falling groundwater levels “drives people to dig deeper into the ground, or increase the depth of their existing wells. All this causes the drying of natural springs and impacts the availability of drinking water for cities and villages,” he said. 

The official source from the Water Resources Directorate gave a similar assessment. “Digging to a depth of 125 meters below ground used to be enough to get 30-35 cubic meters of water per hour, while now you have to dig 200 meters deep to get the same amount,” he said. 

In eastern Daraa, near the border strip with Jordan, “water is found only in deep layers, up to 500 meters deep,” the official source added. “And when examining the water from those wells, it was found to be unfit for drinking because it is sulfuric and has high conductivity [a high level of salts].”

Why did the drilling depth increase? 

Data previously collected by Syria Direct shows that temperatures in Daraa province increased, from 2007 to 2021, by an average of 1.20 degrees Celsius. Over the same period, temperatures in the country as a whole rose by an average of 1.02 degrees.

Syria and other countries in the region are currently experiencing above-average temperatures due to the “heat dome” phenomenon, in which high pressure in the atmosphere traps warm air below it, increasing heat. 

Meanwhile, rainfall in Daraa province during the 2022-2023 rainy season was 36 percent lower than its level in 2018-2019. Data collected by Syria Direct shows fluctuating annual rainfall rates in the southern province from 2007 to 2023. 

While the rainfall rate over the past five years was higher than between 2007-2017, delayed rains and increased temperatures have impacted groundwater and some agricultural crops, such as wheat

Read more: ‘Granary of Rome’: Can the Houran’s wheat survive climate change and war? 

Abu Aqab recalled that the last time al-Wadi, a seasonal stream that runs through Inkhil, overflowed due to heavy rains was in 2008. Since then, “the rains decreased gradually every year,” contributing to lower groundwater levels and reduced well productivity. 

“The expansion and development of agriculture in Daraa and excessive groundwater pumping throughout the province” plays a major role in reduced groundwater levels, according to the official from the Directorate of Water Resources. At the same time, “the rainfall cannot make up for the shortage of underground stocks,” he said. The result has been the “drying of surface springs and natural bodies of water, like the Muzayrib Lake.”

But human encroachments through the rampant drilling of wells have the largest impact on the area’s water supply. The number of well drilling rigs in the al-Jidour area alone has increased from three rigs before 2011 to seven today, Abu Aqab said, which indicates an increase in the number of wells. Since the start of the year, he alone has drilled 20 wells, “a huge number.”

Inkhil, Jassim, Kafr Shams and their surrounding areas are seeing the most drilling, due to “their distance from the waters of the Wadi al-Ashari area near Nawa, which was once a source of drinking water for the area,” he said. “Many of the wells we’re digging aren’t for agriculture, but for drinking and selling water tanks.” 

Many natural springs in the Daraa countryside have dried up this year, the water engineer said, including the spring feeding Muzayrib Lake and the Zayzoun Spring. 

Abu Aqab has not noticed any change in the quality of water extracted from the wells he drills. But the water engineer has tracked a set of changes over the past three years, including the “increased turbidity of spring water from two turbidity units to eight units for some springs like the Muzayrib Spring.” 

In addition, “the percentage of total salts increased from 140 to 200 milligrams per liter, and conductivity increased from 300 to 400,” he said. Meanwhile, “the amount of chlorine needed for effective sterilization increased, from 0.6 grams to 1.2 grams per cubic meter, because some of the chlorine is lost to turbidity.” 

Crucially, reduced groundwater levels impact the province’s supply of public drinking water. “The flow of many springs decreased and became inadequate to operate pumping stations working at the source,” the engineer said. He warned that “the drying of the springs in turn affects the climate and trees in the surrounding area.” 

Drinking water

Every two weeks, Abu Hussam (a pseudonym) buys a tank of drinking water for his family of five. The water that reaches the 28-year-old’s house through the public ground network is not enough for their needs “because of the network’s weak water pumping, and power cuts during pumping hours,” he said. 

As a result, he spends around SYP 140,000 ($10.90), a quarter of his monthly salary, for two tanks a month. 

Despite the impact of well drilling on Daraa’s water supply in general, Abu Hussam felt “the water situation has improved” recently as a result of community-funded projects and initiatives launched at the start of the year in most cities and towns in the province, including Inkhil where he lives. Funds were gathered from Daraa natives—both inside and outside Syria—to fund projects to provide drinking water and streetlights and renovate schools.

The areas of these projects have already seen artesian wells drilled and solar power units installed to operate them, alongside water pumping network maintenance, through donations, leading to a minor improvement in these services. But they still remain below the required level, multiple local sources told Syria Direct.

One source at the Drinking Water Unit in Inkhil—which is affiliated with Syria’s General Establishment for Drinking Water—said the unit has 11 wells with a combined flow of 204 cubic meters per hour, noting that two of the wells are “very low.” 

“Depending on how much water is produced daily from wells using solar energy and the electric current together, the share of water per person per day [in Inkhil] is 32 liters, one fifth of the share of water per person under normal conditions,” the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sets the amount of water required to ensure most basic needs are met and health problems are avoided at 50-100 liters per person per day. 

Daraa province as a whole “is fed by two water sources: springs with a total flow of 3,000 cubic meters per hour, and 430 wells with a combined flow of 7,000 cubic meters per hour,” an official source at the General Establishment for Drinking Water in Daraa province said. 

According to these figures, the average daily per capita share of water in the province is around 100 liters per day, compared to 150 liters per day before 2011. 

The official stressed the danger of indiscriminate well drilling, noting that it “depletes groundwater and leads to a drop in the level of some [water] sources that feed into the drinking water network, while others dry up.” This is happening at a time when the region’s waters are being broadly affected by “climate and drought, electricity rationing programs, and the unstable and low-voltage [electric] current, which negatively impacts the continuation of water pumping and disrupts some mechanical and electrical equipment,” he said. 

For now, well drilling continues unabated. With public water impacted by prolonged power cuts—which sometimes last 24 hours in Inkhil—and a countrywide fuel crisis, particularly in the mazot diesel used to operate water pumps, “the water problem in Daraa is getting worse,” the source at the Inkhil water unit said. With it, “the scale of encroachments on the network is increasing.”

 

This investigation was produced with financial support from the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). Syria Direct is solely responsible for its contents, which do not necessarily reflect the views of EED. It was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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