Two-and-a-half years ago, a group of children in the Syrian city of Dara’a triggered one of the bloodiest conflicts in the 21st
century when they painted some anti-government graffiti on a school wall in the ancient farming community.
The children were quickly detained and tortured, leading to widespread protests in the city that were met with harsh repression. The government’s brutal response led to a nationwide revolt that has now stagnated into a bloody stalemate with no end in sight.
Dara’a is a mostly agricultural community in a region that has suffered an unrelenting drought since 2001. Some experts say it’s no accident that Syria’s civil war began there.
In 2009, the United Nations and other international agencies found that more than 800,000 Syrian farmers and herdsmen had been forced off their lands because of drought, with many crowding into cities like Dara’a. Additionally, thousands of illegal wells were drilled, drastically lowering the nation’s ground water supply.
The effects of drought and water-mismanagement in the region were highlighted recently by the publication
of U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration satellite photographs of Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
Faced with drought, Syrians crowding these farm towns started drilling deeper for fresh water in the aquifer beneath them. Experts estimated that 60 percent of the aquifer has been lost due to illegal drilling, and a total of 177 million-acre feet of water disappeared, the second-largest aquifer loss in the world.
Satellite images reveal depth of drought
“I actually don’t think the aquifer will recover,” said Jay Famiglietti
, a hydrologist and leader of a study of seven years of NASA satellite data that show the Tigris-Euphrates region second only to India in the speed of its groundwater loss.
“The Middle East is the dry part of the world and now that climate change is expressing itself very clearly, one of the things that we will see is that the dry parts of the world will get drier,” Famiglietti said.
“Think of it as a persistent prolonged drought.”
Because of climate change, the Tigris-Euphrates basin and the underground reservoirs of fresh water that once nurtured this fragile desert climate may not be able to sustain future populations in Syria.
It all started in Dara’a
The Syrian uprising was unlike political uprisings in Egypt, Yemen and other Middle East states, all of which started in the major cities. Dara’a was a regional agricultural hub with a pre-war population of 90,000.
“Dara’a is the capital of an agricultural province, one of the most significant agricultural areas,” said Syria scholar Ayel Zisser
of the Tel Aviv University.
Their protests spread from Dara’s at Syria’s southern border to communities north of Aleppo and across the vast al-Jazira plain that stretches from the banks of the Euphrates to the banks of the Tigris. The pattern of the protests followed the rural path of the drought.
“Even until today it’s been a peasant revolt isolated to the rural areas,” Zisser said.
Assad’s economic reforms focused on global trade that benefitted the urban middle classes, thereby worsening the plight of Syria’s farmers, according to Zisser.
The reforms were implemented “at the expense of the population in the rural areas, where they abolished agricultural subsidies,” Zisser said. “The regime turned its back to the rural population and the result was the revolt.”
Like other Middle Eastern countries, Syria’s population has increased dramatically in recent years.
“This is the first time in history that in less than 30 years, the Middle East doubled its population. It was between 1950 and 1980,” said Arnon Soffer
, a demographer and the head of research at the University of Haifa and Israel’s National Defense College.
“If that’s not tragic enough, from 1980 to 2010 – another 30 years – this crazy area doubled itself again,” Soffer added.
Even before climate change threatened less rainfall in the region, water was a hot-button issue.
In 1973, Iraq rushed troops to Syria’s eastern border as upstream, Syria began filling its Tagba Dam with Euphrates water to create Lake Assad.
The real water power in basin is Turkey.
Syria and Iraq depend on the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, which flow from southern Turkey, for most of their agricultural irrigation. Farmers on both sides of the border also rely on traditional irrigation techniques that waste water resources.
“Turks use most of the water of the Euphrates,” said Bogochan Benli
, a water expert who worked in the Aleppo labs of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas during the years of the drought. Aleppo and many northern Syrian communities traditionally also depended on the Euphrates for their drinking water, he said.
In Turkey, Benli said since the 1970’s the Southeastern Anatolia project has created employment for a poor and arid region of Turkey. It’s the main income-generator for the region and their water policy “will never change.” The project is an ambitious development of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants to irrigate and provide electrical power in nine Turkish provinces.
The centerpiece is the massive Ataturk Dam and hydroelectric power plant that opened in 1990. According Arnon Soffer of Haifa University a few months before the dam was completed, then-Turkish president Turgut Ozal told Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, “Now you can wash yourself for the next two months, but I will close the Ataturk Dam and I will dry the Euphrates River.”
He said Ozal’s abrupt pronouncement to Hafez Assad was devastating to Syria. “The Euphrates became a wadi, a dry valley,” said Soffer. Assad Dam closed for a month. “The dam was empty and there was no electricity. Even up to today, I could not imagine how they could recover.”
Though Turkey and its downstream neighbors have discussed sharing their waters, Turkey has not signed away any rights.
With little or no regional cooperation on water issues, experts fear that the turmoil now wrecking Syria could be a prelude to other conflicts in the region.