War or peace? In Syria, water flows both ways

(Credit: Rocio Egio for Geneva Solutions)

Around 60 kilometres north of Aleppo lies the small town of Jalamah, nestled in the hills of north-west Syria. A decade has passed since protests in the city of Daraa at the opposite end of the country sparked an uprising that later escalated into the bloody war that continues to rage in parts of Syria. But although today’s battles remain far from the town walls, the residents have been faced with a new fight in recent years: the fight to get water.

Already an arid country like most of its neighbours in the Middle East, Syria has been in a situation of high water stress for over four decades. Many scholars view drought and water shortages as contributors to the unrest that escalated into the 2011 civil war. Diminished water resources and government mismanagement resulted in 1.5 million people, mainly farmers and herders, losing their livelihoods, forcing them to abandon their land and move to urban areas, intensifying the country’s instability.

But as well as being a possible spark of the conflict, Syria’s water has taken on a new role over the past decade as a weapon, used by all parties with catastrophic repercussions for civilians – both immediate and long-term, as the people of Jalamah and across the country can attest.

“The use of water as a weapon of war is nothing new in the Middle East,” says Ahmed Haj Asaad, founder of Geneva-based NGO Geo Expertise, which has spent 20 years working on water projects in Syria, including a rehabilitation project in the Jalamah area. “But what was new in the Syrian conflict is that water was used as a weapon against the population, whereas before it was only on the battlefield.”

Damages from airstrikes to water and wastewater treatment infrastructure, combined with a lack of maintenance and other tactics such as deliberate contamination of water sources, have resulted in a 50 per cent decrease in the Syrian population’s access to safe water since the start of the conflict in 2011. According to Unicef, 15.5 million Syrians lacked access to adequate water and sanitation services in 2019 – around 90 per cent of the current population.

With the regime seemingly having washed its hands of water management, the battle for water is left to civilians and civil society to fight alone.

How water became a weapon of war

“The weaponization of water is as old as mankind,” explains Tobias von Lossow, a research fellow at the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute. But with the adoption of The Hague Conventions in 1907 and the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions later in 1977, “it became an international norm not to attack water infrastructure”.

“It was a turning point where states and official state actors began to stay away from it,” he explains. “It is a violation of international humanitarian law, law of war and other international standards and norms.”

“Before the 1970s, the weaponization of water was always an exceptional measure – a game-changer, a means of last resort. That has changed over the last decade, particularly in Syria, but also Iraq and the wider Middle East,” says Von Lossow. “Water became more and more integrated in the day to day war-making, used in different ways, for different means, and whenever it served  a certain purpose.”

The weaponization of water began instantaneously in the bloody history of Syria’s war, used by the regime in response to the civil uprising of 2011, explains Marwa Daoudy, a professor in international relations at Georgetown University and former lecturer at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

“Water is a very valuable weapon [in Syria] because there’s an issue of drought already,” says Daoudy. “It was weaponized by states and non-state actors, because they all mobilised water or the infrastructures around water distribution to leverage power over their counterparts.”

“During the conflict, every time there was a city that was resisting the Syrian regime, the water supplies were cut by the regime,” she says, citing the siege of Homs which began in 2011 and lasted three years until May 2014 as the first of many examples.

Water infrastructures were frequently captured, allowing warring parties to control water and electricity supplies – always to the detriment of civilians. In the long-running fight over Aleppo, from 2012 to 2016, key water sources were won back and forth between the opposing sides, which would then cut off access to parts of the city that were under enemy control.

Dams and pumping stations along the Euphrates river that supplied urban centres such as Aleppo also took on new strategic importance. Early on in the conflict, when Islamic State (IS) militants took control of Tabqa Dam, the largest dam in Syria, and Tishrin Dam, they took control of roughly 60 per cent of Syria’s fresh and drinking water resources.

“It started early on in the conflict and, later on, non-state actors picked up the same strategies,” says Daoudy. “It's not a new weapon, but it became strikingly normalised as a weapon as the conflict evolved and escalated.”

Water as a target

Water infrastructure was directly targeted during the fighting from both air and land. In 2019 alone, a United Nations investigation documented and verified 46 attacks on water facilities in Syria. Aside from direct attacks, pumping stations, pipes and wells were frequently caught in the crossfire and damaged during heavy bombardment.

Water sources were also sometimes deliberately contaminated, leaving water undrinkable for local populations. There was widespread looting of infrastructure and material, which rendered water systems inoperable, as did frequent electricity shortages.

The immediate consequences of this destruction were catastrophic for civilians, who were left searching for alternatives when supplies were cut off – be it travelling for miles to fetch water, rationing, or paying a premium to buy poor quality water from private sellers, while household incomes plummeted and poverty rates skyrocketed. The country’s agricultural sector was devastated, and reduced access to basic resources contributed to mass internal displacement. According to Unicef, by 2015, five million people in Syria faced potentially life-threatening water shortages as a direct result of the conflict.

“The main victims in all of that are the civilians, because, between the regime’s weaponization, non-state actors’ capture and control of infrastructures, water being used as a military tool or a military goal or a military target, they're caught in between,” says Daoudy.

The war has pushed Syria into a water crisis, with the country among the 25 most likely to face extreme water stress by 2040. North-eastern Syria is the area worst affected: 27 per cent of households spend as much as one-fifth of their income on water from tankers. Contamination of water sources, caused by deteriorating and damaged infrastructure and wastewater flooding, also has dire health implications for millions of Syrians.

Before the conflict, around 90 per cent of the population had access to drinking water. By March 2021, shortages of safe drinking water had left around 35 per cent of the population still relying on alternative and often unsafe water sources, with 12 million people needing water and sanitation services. Today, 60 per cent of the population have access to less than 20 litres of water per day – the WHO minimum requirement. In areas that are still experiencing conflict, Haj Asaad from Geo Expertise says it can be less than three litres.

Civil society: taking back ownership

Before Syria’s war, water supply networks were managed by the state with no participation of the local population, and the price of drinking water was subsidised between 40-70 per cent, with the price fixed throughout the country. But since 2011, the regime’s management of water networks has collapsed – both in areas inside and outside its control.

The burden has therefore fallen onto local and international NGOs to try to find solutions to the country’s deepening water crisis. While Syria’s water networks are largely still damaged or inoperable, most communities rely on buying expensive water in tanks from private sellers. However, with 90 per cent of Syrians now living in poverty, few can afford this, and many rely on water tanks provided by NGOs, who are also rehabilitating networks in some areas of the country. But Haj Asaad explains it is time for Syria to move beyond emergency measures to long-term solutions.

“The rehabilitation and the assumption of responsibility for providing water to local populations is underway thanks to international organisations, but they are applying the emergency recommendations to ensure 20 litres per person per day in times of crisis, but it is a crisis that is getting longer, and that is too little for the long term,” he says.

Haj Asaad, who was born and raised in Syria but moved to Geneva to study at the Graduate Institute, founded his organisation over two decades ago to respond to the country’s then-looming water crisis. The conflict prompted him to focus on rehabilitating the country’s water systems, and explore how water could be used as a tool to help Syria’s recovery.

The town of Jalamah lies at the centre of one of Geo Expertise’s most recent projects to restore and manage a local water supply network, some of which has been damaged and other parts abandoned during the conflict.

The Afrin district where Jalamah is situated is home to a huge number of displaced people from cities such as Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Idlib, which is driving up tensions between communities as depleted water sources come under increased pressure. Kuran, a nearby village served by the network, is now home to 300 displaced families alongside 130 native families.

Before the Geo Expertise project, the majority of people could not afford to pay for water from tanks – the area’s main source of water. Many families therefore relied on unsafe water from shallow wells, natural springs and a nearby reservoir that was frequently contaminated by people washing livestock and clothing. Haj Asaad says many communities across the country face similar problems.

The Geo Expertise project, which was set up in collaboration with the Graduate Institute in Geneva, has repaired damaged infrastructure to provide the area with more affordable and regular water. Each village is provided with water every three days, with each family filling tanks with the amount of water they need for the period. A year since it began, the project has restored water access in the region to pre-conflict levels, and provides 50 litres of safe water per person per day to over 21,600 people, 50 per cent of whom are displaced.

The establishment of local water associations is also central to the project. These groups are made up of notable figures from the region, including native and displaced communities, who meet to discuss problems associated with water and other local issues. Haj Asaad says the associations are key to bringing different communities together over a shared common good and empower locals to take control of one of the most basic necessities.

Haj Asaad thinks local management of water supplies and “strengthening the role of the local community” is an important way to combat Syria’s water crisis, while also promoting social cohesion in communities torn apart by war. “Before the crisis, it was only the central state that managed this,” he says. “Now it has to be redistributed to avoid the politicisation of access to water in the future. This will also strengthen social cohesion between Syrians.”

An instrument of peace

As well as providing thousands of Syrians in the area with water, collaboration over shared water sources has helped bring populations together and eased tensions for the good of the local community. Haj Assad says the project has given him hope that water could be the key to bringing peace to Syria’s broken society.

“Material damage in Syria is important, but the social contract that the Syrians have entered into is a social contract of violence, and unfortunately it is difficult to find a subject that can bring Syrians together. The majority of the topics are problematic ones,” he says. “But [we can] identify the unifying role of water in Syria, because it is a universal and neutral good for everyone.”

He says his work in Syria is now focused on identifying more regions that not only need water systems rehabilitating but where water can be used as a “social moderator” between communities – to start to repair this broken social contract. “It is a way to start negotiations, and it should be the first step towards reconciliation,” says Haj Asaad. “It should also encourage local communities to get involved, to set up a water management system and to lead the negotiation between the actors.”

An ongoing battle

The need for local solutions is becoming more urgent by the day, as the water crisis that has gripped Syria continues to escalate.

In Kurdish-held north-east Syria, a dramatic drop in water levels from the Euphrates river flowing downstream from Turkey is threatening over five million people with water scarcity and power outages, including one million displaced Syrians, largely housed in makeshift camps along the border. Combined with a reduction in rainfall, rising temperatures and the worst drought the country has faced in 70 years, humanitarian groups have warned of an imminent and unprecedented water crisis.

Turkey blames the drastic reduction in water flow on drought, but many view it as a political manoeuvre to weaken Kurdish fighters in the territory. Since the Turkish military’s incursion into north-east Syria in October 2019, the water supply has been intermittently cut off from Alouk Water Station, which supplies water to the refugee camps and surrounding area. In Hassakeh city, which relies on Alouk, disruption in 2020 left 500,000 thousand people without reliable water at the height of summer, when temperatures hit 50ºC, while the Covid-19 pandemic raged across the country.

“When Turkey seized the Alouk pumping station in early 2020 (...) it became the latest weaponizer in the conflict,” says Daoudy.

Experts with a close eye on the crisis in Syria are also concerned that the water-related warfare tactics used over the past decade could leave a damaging legacy, and set a new dangerous example that other conflicting parties could seek to replicate.

“The fact that this way of weaponization became a normality for 10 years and happened so frequently has somehow changed the standards of how water is being dealt with during conflict in the region,” says Von Lossow. “Water always served as a political instrument in 'normal' times, but using it as a military tool in war times will very likely continue to shape today's and future conflicts such as those in Syria, Yemen and Libya.”

An uncertain future

While the worst of the fighting may have subsided, the country's crisis is far from over. And the fight for water is just one of the many battles facing millions of Syrians.

“The water infrastructure in Syria is in a bad condition. It's been damaged for a decade but even before it wasn't in good shape. The longer the conflict goes on, the more serious the damages, ”says Von Lossow. “Things are getting worse and worse, but this is just one aspect of a terrible overall conflict, so you don't necessarily see it. There's a lot of long term damage that has been and is committed. ”

“It's not only the water quantity but also the water quality, it's water for agriculture, for urban infrastructures – it's all kinds of water challenges, and hardly anything is being done at the moment,” continues Von Lossow. “This will also be a big issue in the future. At the moment, everybody feels it is related to the conflict, but when the conflict is over and the country in a very fragile political situation, water issues will be a time bomb, and a really pressing challenge in the post-conflict setting. ”

For now, the task falls on the shoulders of organizations such as Geo Expertise to repair the country's water systems, and even use them to pave the way for peace.

Blue Peace, a Swiss initiative that seeks to foster cooperation between countries over shared water sources to promote collaboration and resolve conflict, works with countries in the Middle East region. Although Syria has not been directly involved in their work currently, Blue Peace wants to ensure that, when peace finally does come, it won't be left behind.

“Syria is suffering,” says Mufleh, a water expert and programme officer of the Swiss regional office in Amman, Jordan. “Because water is not just water for drinking, it is for electricity, for investment, for development. Without water, there is no life.”


This article was realised with the support of the city of Geneva as part of its media support program.