Old man spent his life by Euphrates says river no longer recognizable

RAQQA, Syria (North Press) Hussein al-Shehadeh is filled with sadness as he frequently observes the water level of the Euphrates declining, hoping that it will return to its previous level from several years ago, before Turkey weaponized the river’s water.

Hussein al-Shehadeh, 64, from the village of Abu Qubai, which is located 20 km west of Raqqa in northern Syria, feels a deep sense of frustration whenever he visits the river, which is only a few meters from his home, as he observes the water level decreasing day after day. He is one of the most experienced workers in the al-Baath Dam.

The water level of the Euphrates River has dropped by five meters recently due to Turkey’s seizure of the river’s water. The flow rate has been limited to 200 cubic meters per second, which is a serious breach of the 1987 water-sharing agreement signed with Syria and Iraq under the United Nations’ supervision.

The 1987 agreement stipulates Turkey’s permanent commitment to pumping 500 cubic meters of water per second from the Euphrates River towards Syria.

“Water scarcity is a major concern for many farmers. Even the quality of the water has deteriorated; the water flow and purity are not the same as before,” al-Shehadeh told North Press.

The former dam employee witnessed the river at its peak water level, but today he can no longer recognize the river, because of the Turkish pressure on Syria.

Turkey has been withholding water flow in its dams since January 2019, weaponizing the Euphrates River against the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The northeast regions of Syria are the most affected by Turkey’s water cut-off.

Al-Baath regulatory dam

The Syrian government initiated the construction of the “Regulatory Dam”, the other name of the al-Baath Dam, in the 1980s and was completed in the early 1990s. The primary purpose of the dam was to regulate the course of the Euphrates River, manage its flow rate, relieve water pressure on the Euphrates Dam during floods, and generate electricity.

“The dam was wholly constructed by Syrian workers. At the time, the number of workers in the dam reached 4,000, including engineers, experts and technicians,” he added.

The man further explained that “the work was completed in 1991 when the turbines of the dam were first operated. A large number of workers from all Syrian governorates worked in the dam.”

The al-Baath Dam – located between the villages of Mansoura and al-Hammam, 25 km west of the Euphrates Dam – is ranked third in terms of importance among the three dams built on the Euphrates River, namely the Euphrates Dam near the city of Tabqa, and the Tishrin Dam in the southeastern countryside of Manbij, north Syria.

Turkish-induced consequences

Al-Shehadeh holds Turkey responsible for the decline in the Euphrates level, expecting that if it continues with the policy of withholding water, many people in the region will be forced to migrate.

“People who live on the river banks complain about that, as they used to cultivate their lands, invest in it, and eat from it. If the situation remains like this, it will lead to migration. There is no farming or other job opportunities, all because of Turkey,” the man noted.

He continues, “Turkey always uses the policy of withholding water from the Euphrates River as a weapon against the Syrians in the event of any disputes between both parties.”

The Euphrates River is approximately 2940 kilometers long, stretching from its source in Turkey to its mouth at the Shatt al-Arab in Iraq. Of this, 1176 kilometers are in Turkey, 610 kilometers in Syria, and 1160 kilometers in Iraq, with a width ranging from 200 to over 2000 meters at the mouth.

This is not the first time that Turkey has throttled water coming from the Euphrates River. In 1998, when al-Shehadeh was in charge of the regulatory dam, Turkey also reduced the flow rate of the Euphrates, but disputes were settled after Ankara and Damascus signed the Adana Agreement that same year.

Like other farmers whose lands are located on the Euphrates basin, al-Shehadeh was forced to use diesel generators to irrigate his crops due to water scarcity.

Power is almost non-existent in the area; this is because the dam’s turbines are incapable to operate safely due to the low water flow.

At the beginning of March 2022, the AANES’ General Administration of Dams in northern and eastern Syria was forced to completely halt the operation of the Tishrin Dam for a week. The decision was taken after the dam suffered a power outage caused by the low level of water in the dam’s lake, which dropped to the dead level, 320 meters below sea level, leading to a loss of the ability to operate safely.

Earlier, Imad Obaid, an administrator at the Euphrates Dam, told North Press that 3.5 billion cubic meters had been depleted of the strategic reserve of the Euphrates Dam’s lake in Tabqa, northern Syria.

Al-Shehadeh stresses that the damage caused by Turkey’s withholding of the Euphrates water has also affected vegetation which has almost completely disappeared in some areas.

It has also led to the loss of many fish species of the Euphrates River, as well as the disappearance of the water rails, which were abundant in the river’s jungle.

Al-Shehadeh’s only wish is that the Euphrates will return to its previous form, firmly stating that this wish will only be fulfilled if Syrians unite in fighting this “disaster caused by Turkey.”

Reporting by Mustafa al-Khalil