Electricity in Exchange for Water: A Struggle that Northeastern Syria’s Population has to live with

Editors: Maher al-Hamdan and Hoashang Hasan 

In front of her house, Um Mohammad sits, waiting for the “water seller”, or the owner of a drinking water-tank-truck, to come to her rescue. The taps at home have been silent for three days now, and the water she stored using household utensils is about to run out. Worse yet, she is unsure for how long she must wait till water is back to the pipes in her neighborhood, al-Aziziyah, in northeastern Syria. 

Like Um Mohammad, a significant proportion of the population in both al-Hasaka city and Tall Tamr town, in the areas held by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, is coerced into buying five water barrels for 5,000 Syrian Pounds (2$ according to the exchange rate of 2500 Syrian Pounds per US dollar), due to the interruption of water supply from the Alok water station, northwest al-Hasak, carried out by the Turkish forces and the factions of the National Army — Turkey-backed armed opposition groups. 

Electricity in exchange for water 

Turkey demands that the Autonomous Administration provide its control areas in northeastern Syria with electricity to resume pumping water from the Alok Station, the supplies of which it interrupted on the 24th of last February for the first time, putting about half a million people at risk according to a UNICEF report, while twice this number is affected as the Autonomous Administration estimates. 

Meeting with journalists in early March 2020, the General Commander of Russian Forces in northeastern Syria, Alexei Anatoly, said that he held a meeting with the Head of the Turkish Coordination Center, General Burhan Aktash, in the Turkish city of Nusaybin less than 24 hours after the station’s water supplies were blocked for the first time. General Anatoly described the interruption as “illegal and unethical” since “it was carried out without prior notice,” for the Turkish forces had expelled the station’s technicians without offering an explanation to the Russians, despite the agreement signed by the Russian and Turkish presidents concerning the area in October. 

General Anatoly added that General Aktash bluntly asked him to supply Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abiad with electricity generated by the Tishrin Dam in return for operating the station, knowing that the two areas are held by Turkey through the factions of the Syrian National Army since Operation Peace Spring, which Turkey embarked on in October 2019 to take over the border stripe north of al-Hasaka.   

Turkey, General Anatoly said, did not fulfil its obligations despite the fact that the maintenance units of the Autonomous Administration had reinstalled the power lines — destroyed during the confrontations of the Turkey-launched operation— which extend to Mabrouka Power Station that provides both Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abiad with electricity.  

Turkey refused to allow technicians into Alok Water Station on the pretext that the “area is hazardous” and requested further power supplies, amounting to 30 megawatts for Ras al-Ayn alone, said General Anatoly. 

Alok Station out of service  

Located 5 km east of the city of Ras al-Ayn, Alok Water Station was controlled by the Turkish forces and armed opposition factions it supports in October 2019. It feeds massive areas starting from the rural parts of Abu Rasin in the north, as far as the town of Tall Tamr and the city of al-Hasaka, up to al-Hawl and Markada, and finally the town of Sour in the south, covering an area of 200 km, according to Suzdar Ahmad, the joint head of the Water Office of the Autonomous Administration

The Turkish forces have interrupted the station’s water supplies five times since February. However, the station has not been running at full capacity since the 7th of May, when the supplies were cut the last time, Suzdar Ahmed told Mari. “The Turkish forces are currently operating three turbines and 15 wells out of eight turbines and 30 wells.” Accordingly, the water pumping rate dwindled to “its lowest historical levels, about 30%.”

 Ahmad considers the station “out of service,” given that the pumped water supplies are of low volume compared to demanded and regular amounts. 

For his part, the official of the Services Office of Ras al-Ayn Local Council, affiliated with the Syrian opposition, Adnan al-Jadaan, said: “In total, 30 wells supply  al-Hasaka city with water, of which 24 are currently operating, namely they are running at more than 85% [of the station’s capacity], and the other 6 wells need regular maintenance.”

“A unit from the Water Directorate in Al-Hasaka is supposed to carry out the maintenance, and it did not show up yet. If these wells were operating normally, the water supplies would have reached 100%,” he added, stressing that “we did not stop any of the wells, but these are malfunctions that need maintenance by them.” 

“The so-called Autonomous Administration brings its hostility towards Turkey and the Syrian National Army into all the statements it makes to boost its worth among those who pay and support it,” al-Jadaan told Mari.

 “In keeping with principles and being concerned for our people in all areas, we want to abide by the agreement. At the same time, we would like to strike a balance between areas based on needs, meaning there must be justice, for the situation of our civilian people in al-Hasaka is just the same as those in the Peace Spring areas speaking of the demand for water and electricity. The future of the agreement is contingent on the other party’s commitment.”

Water locked up 

It was not Alok Station alone that was made an item of the tension over water, for the chief water resource in Syria was also involved—namely the Euphrates River, which proceeds from Turkey, flowing down Syria before it ends in Shatt Al-Arab in Iraq. Last April, the water coming from Turkey marked its lowest-level, amounting to 200 m3/s, compared to the1000 m3/s peak it sometimes marks, while the average flow usually goes beyond  500 m3/s, according to the Administration of Dams in northern Syria. 

A 1987-signed agreement between Syria and Turkey stipulates that the Euphrates River’s flow rate should exceed 500 m3/s, about 58% of which must be passed down to Iraq, while Syria is to benefit from the rest according to a second agreement concluded in 1989 by Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, recent figures on the water flowing from Turkey to Syria indicate that the water flowing down to Syria fails to cover 40% of former amounts.

In an exclusive statement made to Mari, Mohammad Khalil Tarboush, a member of the General Administration of Dams in Northern Syria, said that “the limited amounts of water affect the way the turbines work. The water reaching the Tishrin Dam can operate one out of six turbines, and two out of eight in the Tabqa Dam.” 

Thirst and darkness

Tarboush said that they have rationed electricity in areas north and east of Syria, people are having only 13 hours instead of the former 20 hours a day, adding that “if the situation continues thus, it will be 8 hours,” which means depriving the population of electricity for most of the day.

Nonetheless, civil sources recounted that the electricity rationing problems in al-Hasaka province preceded the falling water levels of the Euphrates River, while the Autonomous Administration insists on using these crises to justify its underachievement.

However, Ahin Suwaid, the director of the Energy Office of the Autonomous Administration, said that before the Euphrates’ water level fell, “dams were producing 120 megawatt hour (Mwh) per day in all cities and districts,” but weak water flow affected the production, “dams can now provide cities with electricity for 12 hours, which is 80 to 90 mwh.”

Electricity is being distributed according to a set of priorities today, “hospitals, bakeries and vital centers,” she told Mari, the reason why the population is suffering from power cuts, especially during summer, known for its high temperature in the areas north of Syria.  

Neither humanitarian nor divine laws are kept 

Turkey is an occupying aggressor-state […]. It is sparing no means to impose restrictions on the population inhabiting our regions and to displace it,” Luqman Ahmi, spokesperson for the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, told Mari, commenting on Turkey’s practices in the areas run by the Administration.

Every now and then, the Autonomous Administration accuses Turkey of forcibly displacing residents from Ras al-Ayn, Tell Abiad and Afrin, and of changing the region’s demographic character.

“Turkey uses the Euphrates’ water to compel us, so that we do not benefit from the water in generating electricity. It also blocks water supplies to the residents of al-Hasaka province, seeking to displace the area’s indigenous residents,” Ahmi added.

“Turkey is a state that does not abide by any law, neither humanitarian nor divine. It allows itself everything, killing, destroying, occupying, displacing, burning agricultural crops, uprooting trees, looting and sabotaging antiquities, as long as this fulfills its interests.” 

New land grab

Turkey is today in control of the cities of Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abiad, east of the Euphrates River, and the cities of Jarabulus, al-Bab, Azaz, Afrin and Idlib, west of the Euphrates, along with the armed opposition factions it backs. That is Turkey holds reins to power in what amounts to 1% of Syria’s area.  

Walid Jolie, a researcher at the Qamishli-based Euphrates Studies Center, interpreted Turkey’s water and electricity-related practices as an attempt to grab and annex these areas to make them part of the Turkish state, the way it annexed the Sanjak of Alexandretta and Cyprus.

“The only indisputable thing about Turkey’s reasons for occupying the Syrian territories is expansion at the expense of neighbors. All the policies it adopts in the occupied territories head there, whether it is the forced displacement or the policy of Turkification.” 

International controls to secure water 

Bassam Al-Ahmad, director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a Paris-based Syrian human rights organization, stressed that “water, electricity and other resources must be neutralized, given their use under such critical circumstances, including fires and the Coronavirus pandemic.”  

“[These resources] must benefit all local residents in all areas, regardless of the party controlling them. They also must not be subjected to any authority or party that resorts to blackmail to make territorial gains,” he added.  

 “Reports show that up to 450,000 or 600,000 civilians are benefiting from these resources,” al-Ahmad told Mari, adding that “they must be neutralized, put under international control and not left to be ruled by any party.”

“There are no long-term agreements with the Turks. Agreements are always disavowed, and Turkey constantly resorts to blackmail, whether it is the Syrian Democratic Forces or Russia, or else there are hidden reasons that we are not aware of,” he said, adding that “Russia and Turkey cannot be trusted as guarantors in the region; the Syrian experience proved the opposite. The two states worked to bring about a demographic change in some regions and circumvented the agreements and understandings concluded with the parties in control on the ground.”

 “The U.S. has influence over Turkey, but it always tries to avoid interference. When the Turkish interests are at odds with Kurdish ones in eastern Syria, the U.S. relentlessly takes Turkey’s side, even if such a position has a negative impact on the local population.”  

While water continues to be a matter of international betting, Um Mohammad spent more than an hour waiting for the water-tank-truck, whose owner did not show up and only sent a message, saying that “he ran out of water due to the increasing demand and that he will try to come tomorrow.”  Um Mohammad will not be able to do the dishes today or give her children a bath.

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