The Euphrates River Basin; Half of the Country’s Area between the (Confinement) of the River and Periodic Drought.
Ashtar Mahmood Ashtar Mahmood

The Euphrates River Basin; Half of the Country’s Area between the (Confinement) of the River and Periodic Drought.

For the second consecutive year, Turkey reduces the water level of Euphrates river, in this time of the year, resulting in the amounts of water flow across the river reduced by 40% of what was agreed upon in the last understanding between Turkey and Syria. Confining water and reducing its level have become frequent, but their impact and effect vary from one year to another according to the level of rainfall abundance. The country is left without comprehensive water management for decades which is disproportionate with the rapid water deterioration of Syria.

The Turkish reduction takes place in this time of the year, and we are almost at the peak of the consumption of irrigation, where the last irrigation process of the irrigated wheat takes place and cotton cultivation begins. Those two crops are the most water-consuming in Syria, and they are mostly cultivated in the regions of the basin of the Two Rivers in Syria.

The Euphrates river is a highly crucial issue to Syria. Even though the Syrian lands that are considered a basin for the River only constitute 11% of the whole basin, within this basin and its tributary, al-Khabour, is an area of 96.4 square kilometers, which constitute half of the area of Syria! Also, the water resources of the River constitute approximately 45% of the overall available in Syria, and reaches 65% between the basins of Euphrates and al-Khabour. Out of 19 billion annually available cubic meters, the two basins contributed to about 12 billion cubic meters, and that is according to the estimates of 2011–2012.

Agreements not Followed Through

The problem of the Two Rivers is old, and it has not been completely resolved historically under the ever-tensed relationship among the neighboring countries. The only held agreement between Turkey and Syria took place in 1987 and the charters of the United Nations call it an (informal agreement), under which Turkey has pledged to ensure that the flow will not be less than 500 cubic meters per second, and it did not abide by it through many years. Later in the 90s, Turkey expanded its dams on Euphrates, the largest of which is the Ataturk Dam with a storage capacity four times the capacity of the Euphrates Dam. There is also a disagreement on the legal characterization of Euphrates and Tigris. While both should be considered international rivers according to international classifications, Turkey rejects this classification and classifies them as transboundary waters, being an upstream state. According to this, Turkey allows itself to control the amounts of water flowing, and to expand the dams and water and irrigation projects on the Turkish basins of the Two Rivers, which some estimate that they have reached more than 200 dams, where Turkey collects 93% of the dams’ capacity on the Two Rivers.

Wet Season in the Basin Declined by 60%

The severity of the decline is revealed by the change in wet season. The water level of the River has decreased 5 meters on average last year as a result of the overlap of two factors: the Turkish reduction, and the weak flow of springs due to low wet season. It is an unprecedented reduction which has stopped water pumping stations, power plants, and irrigation processes in wide areas. The effect on irrigation may reach more than 300 thousand hectares irrigated directly from river water and from government water projects on rivers in the regions where the River crosses between Aleppo, al-Raqqa, al-Hasakah, and Deir ez-Zur. However, the effect may be less than that because part of these areas is cultivated with crops that do not get irrigated currently. Nonetheless, the problem in the current year largely appears in a way that affected the ability of water pumping stations to secure the needs of residential areas, for this to be accompanied by the very low wet season in the current year, which will carry its wide effects on rain-fed crops, especially wheat. Wet season between current May and last May is less than the annual average by about 60% in the regions between the basin of the River. The most severe decline is in Deir ez-Zur and its countryside. In al-Bukamal, the amount of rainfall in the current season is less than the average by 93%, in Dei ez-Zur by 67%, in Tell Abiad by 66%, while in Qamishli and al-Hasakah 56% - 45% respectively. This severe reduction this year was offset by a rainy season last year, where the average rainfall in the regions in the basin was higher than the annual average by 17% and most of the regions of the north and north-eastern Syria have recorded an average rainfall higher than the annual average rainfall last year. This made the Turkish reduction applied last year less effective. The drought in this year has wide effects on main rain-fed crops, such as: wheat and barley, and it may reduce yields by about 50% just like what happened lately in 2018. The decline in average rainfall has a wider effect on agriculture, given the fact that the proportion of the areas of rain-fed crops has decreased during the years of the crisis, and main crops for food security have become reliant on rainwater, for production to be abundant in a rainy year, and decline at great rates in a dry year. Whereas the irrigated production with its current area cannot compensate for this deficiency, even if the Euphrates water is available.

Syria needs a Radical Change in Water Management

Droughts are frequent, the average rainfall in Syria has declined, and it is difficult to reach serious and comprehensive agreements about the water of the River, while the ability to manage a water crisis in Syria is completely absent. Water management in Syria needs big projects, and a thorough state of stability at the level of the whole country. So, aside from the political negotiation necessary to reach final and fair agreements with Turkey about Euphrates water resources, local water tasks are not less important. Renewable water resources in Syria approximate 16 billion cubic meters, and are less than the needs by at least more than 1 billion cubic meters. These resources are decreasing, spring water and depleted groundwater in particular, at severe rates due to irrigation processes from wells and not developing the tools of water management.

In conclusion, the per capita share of water in Syria has declined within two decades by 94% between 1992 -2012! Major tasks are required for water management, such as: restructuring agriculture completely to adapt with irrigation capabilities, as agriculture consumes about 80% of the available water resources. Specialists suggest for example: reducing the areas of cotton in Syria in exchange for improving its productivity in the area, in addition to achieving what should be (axioms) such as: investing in modern irrigation processes instead of flood irrigation, which does not only waste water, but is also considered one of the main causes of soil salinization in Euphrates basin in particular, and reaching possibilities and mechanisms to benefit from the annual rainwater which reaches 46 billion cubic meters on average, while only 9 -10 billion of it are invested! And many more.

The decades-long water crisis with Turkey is not our only water problem that needs comprehensive and political solutions. What is more important is re-planning agriculture, industry, and even cities on the basis of the reducing water capabilities, and what is happening today is a vast and massive chaos that is leaving us to a dry future by exhausting our water resources.


النسخة العربية

Last modified on Friday, 25 June 2021 21:21
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