Column: Water crisis in Syria and the threat it holds

Syria: Water crisis aggravates in Damascus, UN warns
Damascus residents fill plastic containers with water at a public fountain

The water crisis that Damascus suffered of recently isn’t the only one in the history of the crisis in Syria and won’t be the last, it is just a small part of bigger catastrophe that threatens the whole region.

Assad regime forces backed by Hezbollah and Shia militias have launched the attack on Wadi Barada valley since 22 December, with daily bombing and air raids on the area. The water in Damascus has been cut ever since.

The government assault has coincided with a severe water shortage in Damascus since December 22. Images from the valley’s Media Center indicate its Ain al-Fijeh spring and water processing facility have been destroyed in air strikes.

Rebels say the government bombed the water pumping station at the start of the campaign, while the government says rebels spoiled the water source with diesel fuel, forcing it to cut supplies to the capital.

In the north, Syrian Kurdish forces say they are closing in on the Tabqa dam, the biggest dam in Syria and a key Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold.

In Aleppo, once the country’s most populous city, years of fighting have wrecked water infrastructure and poisoned wells.

A part of a bigger catastrophe

As if the crisis hasn’t destroyed enough of Syria’s economy and power, it started also to threaten its water resources, according to Kieran Cooke.

A new study by researchers at California’s Stanford University has found that the ongoing war has caused a dramatic change in river flows and water availability both in Syria and over the border in Jordan.

The study, focused on the Yarmouk river basin which encompasses areas in both the south of Syria and the north of Jordan, says that changes in water management practices in Syria over recent years are so vast that they can be seen from space.

Researchers, unable to gather data on the ground due to the war, used satellite imagery processed in Google Earth Engine to analyse and measure water usage, storage and river flow rates in the region.

The change in river flows was so huge that the effects could be clearly seen in the photos, the study’s co-author and principal investigator Professor Steven Gorelick noted.

They have also found there had been a catastrophic decline in agricultural activity in southern Syria, with the amount of land being irrigated shrinking by nearly 50 percent.

The study also estimated that water stored in the 11 largest Syrian-controlled reservoirs in the Yarmouk river basin had shrunk by half over the past three years.

“The Syrian crisis has resulted in a reduction in agricultural land in southern Syria, a decline in Syrian demand for irrigation water and a dramatic change in the way the Syrians manage their reservoirs,” said Steven Gorelick, a professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and one of the authors of the study.

Much of the Yarmouk basin has, at one stage or another during the Syria conflict, been taken over by rebel forces. The study says the rebels have lacked the expertise to run the area’s water system: in particular reservoirs have been poorly managed or abandoned altogether.

The amount of water stored in reservoirs in Syria’s Yarmouk basin has dropped by around 50 per cent, a new Stanford University study found Stanford School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences

Not a new problem

Much of the Yarmouk basin has, at one stage or another during the Syria conflict, been taken over by rebel forces. The study says the rebels have lacked the expertise to run the area’s water system: in particular reservoirs have been poorly managed or abandoned altogether.

In the era of Hafez al-Assad, farmers were given substantial fuel and fertiliser subsidies with the aim of not only buying political good will in the countryside, but also of making the country self-sufficient in many commodities. The land was overused and water resources were drained in many areas.

Bashar al-Assad has shown himself far more urban-focused than his father, cutting back on many subsidies to the agricultural sector and favouring Western style market-orientated economic programmes, with often serious consequences for rural areas.

Though some commentators have said that a prolonged, severe drought in the region – caused in large part by climate change – was a major cause of the Syria conflict, other analysts say rural unrest was due more to the chronic failure of successive government agricultural policies, bureaucratic inefficiency and system-wide corruption.

Francesca de Châtel, a Middle East water expert, carried out extensive field work in rural Syria prior to the conflict and argues that the mismanagement of resources by the Assads is fundamental to understanding the conflict’s origins.

“While climate change may have contributed to worsening the effects of the drought, overstating its importance is an unhelpful distraction that diverts attention away from the core problem: the long-term mismanagement of natural resources,” said de Châtel.

“Furthermore, an exaggerated focus on climate change shifts the burden of responsibility for the devastation of Syria’s natural resources away from the successive Syrian governments since the 1950s and allows the Assad regime to blame external factors for its own failures.”


The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.