Almost one million people have been displaced to Northeast Syria, These include internally displaced Syrians, Yezidi refugees from Iraq, and other Syrian, Iraqi, and third-country nationals who previously resided in areas ruled by the Islamic State. most of which are hosted in the Province of Hassaka in camps, urban makeshift settlements, local residents’ homes, and public facilities such as schools. The Turkish military incursion into the area in October 2019 not only worsened access to services and caused further displacement – it also saw the use of water as a weapon of war.
Since coming under the control of Turkey, the water supply has been intermittently cut from Alouk Water Sation, north of Hassaka, which supplies drinkable water from wells in Serê Kaniyê/Ras al-Ayn. This has affected public health and entrenched vulnerabilities. The Covid-19 pandemic has further aggravated the situation to the point where humanitarian services are on the verge of collapse. This weaponisation of water resources portends a wider humanitarian disaster affecting the entire population of Northeast Syria, with further implications for renewed displacement.
Weaponising water by Turkey
This issue of water cuts has unfolded amidst the reduced capacity for relief responses after many international NGOs withdrew from the region due to the unsafe work environment created by the Turkish incursion.
International aid and human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), have urged Turkish authorities to resume supply from Alouk station and brought attention to the issue of water being used as a weapon. However, these calls remain unanswered by Turkey as it further utilises water resources against Northeast Syria (for example, Turkey recently stopped pumping water into the Euphrates River, a critical water source in the region).
Water cuts by Turkey have been condemned as a breach of international humanitarian law, criminal law and human rights law. Crucially, and from a humanitarian point of view, such endeavours are likely to lead to disastrous consequences for those living in Northeast Syria.
Public health risks among the displaced
The water crisis represents a threat to displaced populations in Hassaka on several levels. As well as depriving thousands of people of drinkable, clean water for long periods of time throughout 2020, our field observations indicate that the lack of water has caused many water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities to gradually go out of service or completely shut down. This has particularly affected families living in collective shelters where infrastructure was already fragile. Nineteen-year-old Noura, who lives in one such shelter with her family said:
‘We used to seek clean water from the nearby households, especially to prepare baby milk. Now everybody is looking for water. Even the local people in the neighbourhood whom we used to go to for clean water are now waiting for the water supply coming to our shelter’.
Many people have resorted to using unsafe water sources, including contaminated wells. Inside the camps, collective latrines have also turned into hubs for transmitting infectious diseases. In Al-Hol camp, for example, MSF reported an ongoing outbreak of diarrhoea, which was particularly acute among young children, which also led to serious cases of malnourishment.
Local authorities in Northeast Syria and some international and local relief organisations have responded by installing public water tanks and organising mobile water trucks in the area. Although this has provided necessary relief, more sustainable support is needed.
With prospects of a solution currently out of reach, the disruption to the water supply spells a health disaster in the region as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads. In the words of Adel (32 years old), who lives in Al-A’reesha camp: ‘We are always reminded to wash our hands and follow instructions of cleanness to avoid Corona, but how can we do that when we don’t even have enough water to drink?’.
Intersecting crises amid a pandemic
In any context, when access to clean water and sanitation is disrupted, health services cannot do much to alleviate the situation. Yet, in Northeast Syria several crises (the pandemic, the weaponisation of water and fragile infrastructure) have intersected to bring about almost unprecedented challenges to public health for the displaced. The multi-layered nature of crisis means that certain groups are disproportionally affected.
In Hassaka, where summer temperatures can exceed 45 degrees Celsius, finding clean water is everyone’s first priority. But this means that Covid-19 infection is hard to avoid, especially for women and children who we observed were most likely to collect water. The risk of infection is particularly high in the poorly serviced and extremely crowded camps and shelters where displaced people live.
Makeshift water collection points and mobile water trucks, while providing life-saving relief, have simultaneously contributed to large gatherings of people in often crowded locations. This has made the possibility of becoming infected very real as people are faced with a choice between following advice about hand-washing and social distancing, and accessing clean water. This is summed up by 49-year-old Um Ahmed, who lives in the camp of Washo Kani:
‘We spend half of the day queueing for water. Things were not better before either but at least we could get clean water after all of the wait in line. The water we get nowadays tastes so bad that I regret waiting for it, let alone my persistent fear to get infected being among all of those people, but we have no other options’.
Efforts to contain the pandemic, such as enforcing lockdowns and hygiene and WASH standards, are therefore not only insufficient, but nonsensical when access to clean water is not available in the first place.
All those living in Hassaka are enduring not only a devastating war but also a humanitarian crisis founded on Turkey’s systematic weaponisation of water. Those living in camps and collective shelters are worst affected as they often find themselves locked up or deprived of their right to mobility. It is unknown for how long people can continue to cope with this reality. A renewed mass exodus from Northeast Syria could also be triggered as soon as mobility restrictions on displaced people and refugees are lifted.
Beyond emergency relief efforts, local authorities in Northeast Syria have been seeking alternative water sources. One medium-term solution is the effort currently underway to dig wells; however, this water will only partially supply the daily demand in the region and is unsuitable for drinking unless treated. A longer-term solution is to transfer water to the region from The Euphrates or The Tigris rivers. Yet, this would be both costly and ambitious and may not be viable as Turkey controls the water supply of both rivers. It could also ignite tensions among local communities.
As possible solutions loom on the horizon, it is crucial to remember that instead of treating the symptoms of the crisis, policy efforts must be geared towards resolving the root causes. This will eventually require international action that prohibits the weaponisation of water in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Failing to address the crisis on these terms will cause current hardships to escalate in an already protracted context of war and displacement.