Disaster looms in Syria as Euphrates dwindles
Syria’s longest river used to flow by his olive grove, but Khaled al-Khamees says it has now receded into the distance, parching his trees and leaving his family with hardly a drop to drink.
“It’s as if we were in the desert,” said the 50-year-old farmer, standing on what last year was the Euphrates riverbed.
“We’re thinking of leaving because there’s no water left to drink or irrigate the trees.”
Aid groups and engineers are warning of a looming humanitarian disaster in northeast Syria, where waning river flow is compounding woes after a decade of war.
They say plummeting water levels at hydroelectric dams since January are threatening water and power cutoffs for up to five million Syrians, in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis.
As drought grips the Mediterranean region, many in the Kurdish-held area are accusing neighbour and arch foe Turkey of weaponising water by tightening the tap upstream, though a Turkish source denied this.
Outside the village of Rumayleh where al-Khamees lives, black irrigation hoses lay in dusty coils after the river receded so far it became too expensive to operate the water pumps.
Instead, much closer to the water’s edge, al-Khamees and neighbours were busy planting corn and beans in the soil just last year submerged under the current.
The father of 12 said he had not seen the river so far away from the village in decades.
“The women have to walk 7km [4 miles] just to get a bucket of water for their children to drink,” he said.
Reputed to have once flown through the biblical Garden of Eden, the Euphrates runs for almost 2,800km (1,700 miles) across Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
In times of rain, it gushes into northern Syria through the Turkish border and flows diagonally across the war-torn country towards Iraq.
Along its way, it irrigates swaths of land in Syria’s breadbasket and runs through three hydroelectric dams that provide power and drinking water to millions.
But over the past eight months, the river has contracted to a sliver, sucking precious water out of reservoirs and increasing the risk of dam turbines grinding to a halt.
At the Tishrin Dam, the first into which the river falls in Syria, director Hammoud al-Hadiyyeen described an “alarming” drop in water levels not seen since the dam’s completion in 1999.
“It’s a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.