Decreased flow of Euphrates and Khabur rivers foretell potential humanitarian catastrophe in North and East Syria and Iraq

NORTH AND EAST SYRIA / NINEVEH PLAINS, Iraq — The water crisis in Iraq and Syria continues to worsen, with water scarcity and drought increasingly affecting local communities, the environment, and the agricultural sector. In North and East Syria, a lack of rainfall and Turkey’s cutting the flow of the Euphrates River has resulted in an acute water shortage.

Last November, Salwa Saleh, Co-Chair of the General Directorate of Drinking Water in Hasakah Canton, indicated that the Alouk Water Station in the Rish Ayno (Ras al-Ayn) countryside has stopped working as a result of damage to the power lines which provide it energy.

Since Turkey and its SNA proxies took control of the station in mid-October 2019, operations at the station have been suspended dozens of times.

Factions of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) periodically damage the power lines feeding Alouk with shelling. They also siphon off power from the lines and blame the Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) of North and East Syria for not providing enough power to run the station.

Spokesperson for the DAA of North and East Syria Luqman Ahmi stated that Turkey’s illegal cutting of water to North and East Syria has significantly reduced the water supply. In recent years, the DAA has had to make significant investments in water infrastructure to alleviate water supply insecurity.

Last week, the Tishreen Dam Administration confirmed to the DAA that the depth of the reservoir fed by the Euphrates River has decreased to less than 4.5 meters. If the water level continues to shrink, there is serious risk of a humanitarian catastrophe in the region.

The dam only works for 6 hours a day, which consequently increases hours of electricity rationing, said officials. They also indicated that many of the irrigation water pumps are out of service and the dam can only cover three-fourths of the needs of farmers.


The Khabur River, which runs through the heart of the Syriac–Assyrian Khabur River Valley, has been hit particularly hard.

Years before Turkey’s invasion, Ankara cut off the waters of the Khabur, all but drying it up. What little water remains in the river has become a hotbed of leishmaniasis, according to SuroyoTV correspondent in the town of Tel Tamr, Ahmed Samila.

Dozens of cases of leishmaniasis are reported daily by the Martyr Likrin Hospital in Tel Tamr, Khabur’s largest town.

Leishmaniasis infects humans via a parasite found in sandflies and causes local skin infections that can turn into a severe systemic disease.

Samila interviewed the Director of the Likerin Hospital in Tel Tamr, Dr. Hasan Amin, about the spread of disease caused by the dire state of the Khabur.

“Because of Turkey’s cutting off the water flow to Khabur, it has become a series of stagnant swamps that are the perfect environment for sandfly development and reproduction,” Amin stated.

The dry bed of the Khabur River. (Image: Wim Zwijnenburg).

In a recent report, Netherlands-based non-profit humanitarian organization PAX detailed the destruction of the Khabur River by the SNA, which has built dams upstream. Three dams, clearly visible on satellite imagery, have exacerbated the severe drought in the region, adding that the effect of the intense heat was amplified by limited amounts of rain. Agricultural communities have less water than ever before, at a time when they most need it. According to the report, many farmers in the Khabur River Valley have seen crop yields drop by alarming amounts. Some have lost their entire crop.

The Khabur River has been a source of life and a destination for anyone seeking tranquility and beauty. Perhaps this was a factor for the Syriac (Aramean–Assyrian–Chaldean) when they settled along the rivers banks after arriving in the area from Iraq in the 1930s, seeking refuge after being the target of numerous massacres.

The DAA has begun pumping water to the Khabur River in an attempt to revitalize it. However, given the wider water crisis, it is likely to have little effect. For meaningful progress to be made in the restoration of the Khabur, significant change is needed in the security and political situation in the region. Namely, Turkey must end its policy of using water as a weapon.

Nineveh Plains

Meanwhile, in Iraq, drought threatens to destroy hundreds of thousands of dunums of wheat in Nineveh Plains, according to Shafaq news.

Muhammad Saeed, a farmer in Nineveh Plains, pointed out that water scarcity and lack of rainfall caused a drought in the region in general.

“I planted 40 dunums for wheat,” he said. “But I have not been able to harvest them due to drought.”

The Director of the Agricultural Department in Sheikhan District Tariq Mouloud confirmed that, “More than 100,000 dunums of wheat-planted lands in the region are at risk of damage due to drought and lack of rainfall.”