A dramatic drop in water levels on the Euphrates River in recent weeks is adding to tensions between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces.
Kurdish officials in northeast Syria accuse Turkey of reducing the levels of water flowing downstream, causing an agricultural crisis and a major power shortage in the region.
“Areas under our control benefit greatly from the Euphrates water supply, so this is a blockade approach by the Turkish government to undermine our authority and harm our region,” Badran Chia Kurd, the executive deputy president of the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES), told local radio station Arta FM on Tuesday.
The AANES is a governing body affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led military alliance that has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism in Syria.
Chia Kurd said that disrupting the river’s water flow into a neighboring country violates international law.
But a diplomatic source at Turkey’s Foreign Ministry denied that Turkey has deliberately decreased the volume of water on the Euphrates.
“The allegations that Turkey has cut off or reduced the water of the Euphrates River are unsubstantiated,” the source told VOA. “It is very well-known that Turkey has never reduced or cut off the amount of water released from its transboundary rivers for political or other purposes throughout its history.”
The source, speaking on background, added that “Turkey approaches the water issue solely from a ‘humanitarian’ perspective.”
Turkey views the SDF and its main element, the People’s Protection Units, as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Turkey-based Kurdish militia that Washington and Ankara have designated a terrorist organization.
In recent years, Turkey has launched several major military campaigns against the SDF in northern Syria. As a result, the Turkish military and allied Syrian militias are currently in control of several towns, including Afrin, Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad that were previously held by SDF fighters.
The 2,800-kilometer-long Euphrates is the longest river in southwest Asia, originating in Turkey and flowing southeast across Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the river is a major source of drinking water and vital to agriculture and electricity production.
Since the beginning of the year, water flow from Turkey has fallen from 500 to nearly 200 cubic meters per second, experts say, causing electricity shortages.
“The reduction of water flow has caused major drops in water levels behind the Tishrin and Tabqa dams in our region,” said Cihad Beyrim, an engineer who oversees operations at the SDF-controlled Tishrin Dam, one of Syria's major hydropower facilities.
“We were forced to reduce electricity hours from 16 hours to eight hours per day,” he told VOA by phone. “It’s getting lower now, but if this continues, we will be forced to stop producing electricity altogether as our top priority is to secure drinking water for our population.”
“With a scarce rainfall this season," Beyrim added, "more farmers are relying on water from the Euphrates for irrigation, which makes our situation even worse.”
Officials in Ankara say Turkey also has been suffering drought conditions.
“We are witnessing the adverse impacts of climate change on our water resources, which have been decreasing gradually,” the Foreign Ministry source told VOA. “Whereas Turkey aims at releasing the necessary amounts of water in the upcoming period, depending on climate conditions and drought, there might be decrease in some periods in the released amount of water.”
Rights groups have accused Turkey of failing to ensure adequate water supplies to SDF-held areas in northeastern Syria.
Last year, New York-based Human Rights Watch said a water-pumping station in northeast Syria that is controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian groups has experienced major water supply interruptions, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without drinking water.
But the Turkish government blamed the SDF for deliberately cutting power that supplies the water station.
“The water is supplied from the Allouk Station to Haseke region through the water pumps, which operate on electrical power,” the Turkish diplomatic source said.
“The most recent power cut to the Allouk Station took place in April 18 due to a malfunctioning in Derbasiyah power substation, which is not located in an opposition-controlled area,” the source added.
The station resumed its operations after its electrical grids were repaired, thus restoring the water supply on April 24, according to the Turkish government.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, said Turkey has weaponized water multiple times since last year by interrupting water supply to areas under SDF control in northeast Syria.
“The Turkish government calculates that leveraging water would be particularly effective at a time when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated public health risks in the region,” he told VOA.
Given the relative lack of mobility between Turkey and SDF-controlled territories, Ankara assumes that a coronavirus outbreak among communities who have restricted access to water in northeast Syria would not spill over to Turkey, Erdemir said.
He added that this could a be a serious miscalculation “not only from a medical perspective but also politically.”
“Given its potential moral and international legal ramifications, the weaponization of water may prove to be a significant diplomatic liability for Turkey at a time when Ankara is trying to alleviate its unprecedented isolation regionally and globally,” Erdemir said.