- Turkey is being blamed for shutting off water access for 1 million people in northern Syria.
- Local families now rely on trucks to deliver water, but shortages have increased prices by 200% in a year.
- Most Syrian families live on less than $2 a day, and many are left digging their own wells and praying for rain.
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It’s been 10 days since the last water delivery reached Abdurahman Ferhad’s family in northeast Syria.
Truck deliveries are the only way to get water into his neighborhood. It’s expensive, and it’s not even clean enough to drink.
That’s because neighboring Turkey has been using water shut-offs as a weapon in an ongoing conflict in the Al-Hasakah region, according to local Kurdish authorities and NGOs.
We visited families across the region, including at al-Hol, a refugee camp still haunted by ISIS, to understand this little-known water crisis that is making life unbearable for residents.
Over a million people in northeast Syria don’t have reliable access to drinking water.
Just days after the withdrawal of American forces from northeast Syria in October 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a military offensive designed to establish a buffer zone along Turkey’s southern border with Kurdish-controlled Syria.
While Erdgoan insisted that the 30-kilometer strip of land would provide safe passage for some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey to return home, humanitarian groups warned that the military operations would displace up to 300,000 civilians along the Turkey-Syria border, or even destroy the infrastructure necessary to support local life.
In the first two weeks of Operation Spring Peace, Turkish forces repeatedly bombed bakeries, grain silos, hospitals, schools and the Allouk water station, the region’s only reliable source of water.
Eighteen months after the Turkish invasion, over 1 million civilians in northeast Syria are living without reliable access to drinking water.
“Turkey has shut off the water flow 16 times in the past year  alone, for up to a month, in this region,” said Thomas McClure, a researcher with the Rojava Information Center, a Syrian news agency.
Turkish authorities blame the Kurds for regional water shortages. In a statement to Insider, the Turkey Defense Ministry said that the Kurds “deliberately reduce or totally cut the power supply to the safe zone,” and that Turkey is “doing all it can” to ensure a continuous supply of water.
But local families tell a different story.
“We drill into the ground,” resident Abdelrahman Ferhan said, gesturing to a 0.30m-wide hole in his front yard. “But there is nothing here anymore. The well has become dry.”
It’s a foreboding sign in a region that has traditionally produced between 50% and 75% of Syria’s national wheat crop.
Now, Ferhan’s family relies on trucks that deliver water to his home once a week. Each delivery costs about $3 – an enormous sum, considering 80% of the Syrian people in this region live on less than $2 a day.
Human Rights Watch has condemned Turkey’s failure to ensure adequate water supplies to northeast Syria, as trucking represents a stopgap solution that only reaches 50% of the households in need.
“As an occupier under international law, Turkey has a duty to provide things like medical care, food, water and shelter,” said Sara Kayyali, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes for basic hygiene in this region, including at refugee and internally displaced people camps.
Delai Shansedin Ismail, an aid worker at al-Hol refugee camp, warns that water shortages are further threatening the lives of camp residents.
“If you don’t have enough water, of course you will struggle to protect yourself from the disease,” said Delai Shansedin Ismail, who works with the Kurdish Red Crescent.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch and locals warn that if Turkey doesn’t improve the water supply, the humanitarian crisis here will deteriorate even further.
“There are no differences if you kill people with bombs or cut people’s water. Both result in death,” said Nidal Mohammad, the co-chairman of the Hasakah Water Department. “It shouldn’t be a question if [Turkey] sends it or not.”
“Bringing water here is a matter of life and death.”