Turkey is being accused of "weaponizing" water against Syrian Kurds amid the coronavirus epidemic. Ankara is dismissing the accusation, however, as a "smear campaign."
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch warned Tuesday that "Turkish authorities' failure to ensure adequate water supplies to Kurdish-held areas in northeast Syria is compromising humanitarian agencies' ability to prepare and protect vulnerable communities in the COVID-19 pandemic."
The key Allouk water-pumping station is at the center of the controversy. HRW says that through March, the station worked only intermittently and now is closed again.
Syrian forces backed by Ankara operate the water station that serves territory held by the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is designated as terrorists by Ankara.
In October, Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces launched an offensive against the YPG, taking control of a large swathe of territory. Ankara claims the Kurdish militia is affiliated with the PKK, which is fighting a decade's long insurgency inside Turkey for greater minority rights.
"Turkey and Turkish-backed factions are in control of the area where the Allouk pumping station is. Before they took control, we hadn't seen any interruption in the water supply," said Sara Kayyali, researcher on Syria for Human Rights Watch.
"What we've seen by the closure of the pumping station is an attempt to weaponize, to use water as a weapon to get more out of the Syrian Kurdish lead authority, as well as the Syrian authorities," said Kayyali.
HRW warns the pumping station is of critical importance to hundreds of thousands of people.
"The water pumping station supplies clean drinking water to the most vulnerable refugee camps in the region," said Kayyali.
"There are tens of thousands of Syrians and foreigners who are already living in dire humanitarian conditions. If you stop pumping water to these regions and coronavirus comes in, it will become an absolute disaster," she said.
"Fortunately, until now, we don't have any corona cases, because we acted very quickly, by closing all the borders," said Dr. Raperin Hasan, co-chair of regional Health Authority in Jazira, an autonomous region of northern and eastern Syria.
But Hasan warns, with the region hosting several large refugee camps, the loss of the Allouk water station means they are still facing a humanitarian crisis.
"We now have hundreds of thousand people living together closely without water. They have only a small quantity of water every three days," said Hasan.
"We are trying to bring water from other places by truck, but there is only a very small quantity. It's not working, as there are so many people, and the water quality is not the same as if it comes piped in," she said.
"We already have a lot of diseases — diarrhea, stomach problems, and skin diseases," she added. "But our biggest fear is the coronavirus. Because there is no water to wash their hands, and they have the same problem in Hasakah [a local city]."
Personal hygiene, particularly regularly washing hands, according to experts, is one of the main ways of controlling the spread of the virus.
Ankara is blaming Damascus for failing to provide adequate electricity for the pumping station.
"The unstable electricity supply in the region affects the sustainment of water services provided by the Allouk water station," according to a Turkish official speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"The Assad regime should prioritize repair and maintenance of the electricity infrastructure in the region rather than initiating a joint smear campaign against Turkey with the terrorist organization PKK-YPG, its long-time partner."
HRW’s Kayyali disputes Ankara's explanation. “It's not that there’s not enough electricity; it's just they [Ankara] want the electricity for rest of the region they control," she added.
"Turkey had never used water as a weapon in the region, even when the Syrian regime was hosting the terrorist leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci, of Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
"But if Ankara was to use water to squeeze the Syrian Kurds, that would be against international law and will create major problems for Turkey internationally," he said.
"I think the situation is more likely a failure of all sides to work together, Damascus, Russia, Syrian Kurds, and Turkey. They all need to sit down talk together to resolve this, as it's the most vulnerable who are suffering," Bagci added.
Hasan concurs, warning that the water crisis comes as they are engaged in a desperate struggle to prepare for combating the coronavirus pandemic.
"Our health care system is very, very weak. We don't have supplies. We don't have major hospitals. It's a very big problem. We don't have any international support. We don't even have masks," said Hasan.
"The coronavirus represents a threat to all of us," said Kayyali. "It will be very easy to see how a failure to respond in one part of Syria will defiantly lead to consequences in areas of Syria controlled by other groups, but also in Turkey itself given it’s a neighboring country. It's very clear, if we don't fight coronavirus collectively and do what we can, we are all going to suffer the consequences."