Event Summary: Running Dry: Exploring the Water Crisis in Syria

As the water crisis in Syria reaches a breaking point, CSIS convened civil society members and researchers on September 19 to discuss the complexity of the current situation, the role of donor countries, and avenues for sustainable change. Panelists emphasized that the current approach to resolving the crisis is inconsistent and unsustainable. Stakeholders must move towards a data-informed, comprehensive, and unified approach to address this worsening crisis.  

A significant issue in addressing the water crisis in Syria is the lack of data on everything from water levels to water quality and the sustainability of water systems. Without this data, donor countries and organizations struggle to develop effective plans of action. The lack of coordinated data collection and monitoring of water sources and infrastructure is leading to predictable crises. 

For example, due to limited to no regulations, toxic chemicals are dumped near major sources of water for displaced people. Simav Hassan, advocacy and communications officer at Syrians for Truth and Justice, also pointed out that camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) also lack wastewater systems, contaminating water sources, and potentially increasing the number of cholera cases and other waterborne diseases. Both Marjolaine Bos, former WASH coordinator for the Northeast Syria Forum, and Syrian civil society activist, Nadeen Taha, also discussed how climate change and unsustainable water usage has decreased groundwater levels, increasing the concentration of sulfur and fluoride. Though these elements may be reaching toxic levels, lack of alternatives force IDPs to rely on such sources of water. 

Inadequate maintenance coupled with earthquakes have also damaged the foundation of Syria’s dams making the country particularly vulnerable in the event of major weather events. Marie Schellens, environmental researcher at Pax for Peace, pointed to two dams in northwestern Syria that are particularly concerning after the February 6 earthquake. In the northeast, the decrease in the Euphrates River, close to deadpool, threatens electricity and drinking water for millions. The reduced flow decreases water for irrigation and electricity to pump water, meaning that those closer to irrigation canals or the river tend to be better off. This inequity exacerbates communal tensions.  

On top of neglect during the protracted conflict, warring parties have also used water to their benefit. In northeastern Syria, military forces, particularly ISIS, captured water infrastructure and purposefully let it fall into disrepair. Bombings also target water facilities, leading to water shortages throughout the region. Environmental journalist, Peter Schwartzstein, noted that between 2013 and 2015, there were multiple instances along the Orontes and Asi Rivers in which the regime cut off access to irrigation canals that supplied water to rebel-held territory. Additionally, in 2021, the villages south of Tal Tamr experienced severe water shortages due in part to the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army constructing two dams to obstruct the flow of water downstream into areas controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. 

Panelists concluded with action plans for stakeholders. Several argued that aid from international organizations and donor countries should be allocated to civil society groups and local organizations and initiatives. Bos also noted that, while global advocacy for the water crisis in the Northeast is growing, the lack of international and local coordination on data collection and programs remains a significant hurdle to solutions. Monitoring water sources and coordinating between various stakeholders involved in water and sanitation could ease the crisis. If donor governments prioritized water diplomacy with Turkey, such negotiations could also alleviate water and electricity shortages in northeastern Syria.