Turkish-backed armed groups have once again blocked the northeast of Syria’s water lifeline, preventing the flow of the Khabur River reaching rural communities. The blockade comes at a time when northeast Syria has faced its driest summer in history. Humanitarian agencies are reporting that over 12 million Syrians have been affected.
Annual rainfall in the Khabur basin ranges from over 400 mm in the north to less than 200 mm in the south. The Khabur River is the largest tributary of the Euphrates and is a vital water source for the region.
The blockages are exasperating an area already struggling with extreme water shortage – severely impacted by the three dams built upstream by the Syrian National Army (SNA) and by a brutal climate change-linked drought.
The latest blockade is another example of water being used as a weapon in war during the conflict in Syria. From the shutdown of Alouk water station, as well as limited flow into the Euphrates, the Khabur is an indispensable source for the survival of the civilian population. With the civilian population being denied their sustenance, questions are being raised as to whether the blockade violates international humanitarian law.
“Under International Humanitarian Law, included in the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocol I (Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts), attacks on ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population’, (including water infrastructure), is prohibited” (PAX).
The consequences are serious. Over 84 rural towns and villages lack access to water for essential household and agricultural use and it is estimated that thousands of household’s livelihoods, and lives, are under threat.
Many farmers and pastoralists are struggling to irrigate land and livestock. The intense water scarcity has coincided with high diesel prices and has prevented many farmers from operating their pumps. Unable to irrigate, many farmers are being forced to leave vast tracts of agricultural land fallow. Many have simply abandoned the region.
With a recorded 70% decrease in water levels in Syria, communities depending on the Khabur River are faced with starvation and forced displacement unless the dams are removed and solutions relating to climate-linked degrading natural resources are discussed peacefully.