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As COP28 looks at conflict-climate overlap, northwest Syria should be exhibit A 

‘All the farmers in the area have suffered huge losses because of the lack of water.’

A man called Khaled al-Aboud is pictured from a medium close up and stands in the middle of a field and holds dried up crops from his farm after drought devastated his harvest. Mahmoud Abo Ras/TNH
Khaled al-Aboud, a farmer in northwest Syria, holds dried-up crops after drought devastated his harvest this year.

For the first time, the UN’s annual climate change conference is putting a spotlight on the overlap between conflict and the climate crisis, and on the pressing need to address its neglected humanitarian consequences.

As COP28 begins today in Dubai, the urgency for more climate financing to be directed to conflict settings – and the challenges of getting that money into the hands of the people who need it most – are on full display in opposition-held northwest Syria. A years-long drought is compounding the suffering caused by ongoing conflict, earthquakes that struck the region earlier this year, and the longer-term effects of 12-and-a-half years of civil war.

Residents of the northwest, NGOs and academics The New Humanitarian spoke to said the drought, which began in 2021, and the effects of conflict have led to severely low levels of water for agriculture, sanitation, and drinking, while forced displacement, rising poverty, and the aftermath of the earthquakes have left the population increasingly unable to deal with the shocks of water insecurity.

Since the beginning of October, the northwest has also been experiencing the most intense military escalation by the Syrian regime and Russia in nearly three years. More than 70 people have been killed and over 120,000 have been displaced by the airstrikes, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

Around 4.5 million people live in northwest Syria, which is controlled by a mix of rebel groups. Around 4.1 million of the residents depend on some form of humanitarian assistance, and 2.9 million are internally displaced, with many having been forced from their homes in other parts of the country.

The amount of assistance provided by the international community has long fallen short of meeting the needs of the population, which have increased since the earthquakes. The political situation in northwest Syria also poses major barriers to the delivery of aid.

UN Security Council resolutions to allow humanitarian supplies to enter the northwest from Türkiye without permission from the Syrian government are often subject to political wrangling between Russia, the United States, and other Western countries. The groups that control territory in the northwest – including Turkish-backed opposition militias and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which the UN has designated as a terrorist organisation – are also not easy alternatives as humanitarian partners.

Any attempt to deliver climate financing to the region would likely face similar stumbling blocks to those faced by humanitarian aid.

Amid increasing moves across the Arab world toward normalising relations with the Syrian government – treated as a pariah by much of the international community since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 – the UAE invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to COP28 earlier this year. The invitation was condemned by human rights groups and the survivors of alleged war crimes committed by al-Assad’s government. It is still unclear if al-Assad will attend, but the Syrian government is sending a delegation.

If the focus on conflict and the climate crisis at this year’s conference does result in more funding, in Syria, that money should go directly to local communities, said Marwa Daoudy, an associate professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in the United States whose work has focused on the intersection of climate change and conflict in Syria.

“I think wealthier nations definitely have a responsibility [to provide funds]; they’re the ones polluting the most. [But] there’s no need to go through international channels or the Syrian government,” Daoudy said. “A lot of these communities have lived in arid conditions for millennia. They are used to adapting to arid conditions, and they are very much aware of conservation techniques.”

The impact of drought

In northwest Syria, the overlap of the drought with the after-effects of this year’s earthquakes and an economy decimated by over a decade of war is pushing the ability of communities to adapt to the brink.

Jafar al-Ali, 27, is a Palestinian refugee who grew up in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria’s capital Damascus. He was forcibly displaced from Yarmouk by the civil war and now lives in Dayr Ballut close to the Turkish border in the northwest. Al-Ali supports his family of five by working in a small restaurant on the bank of the Afrin River. But business at the restaurant has been slow since the river dried up completely three months ago.

Jafar al-Ali is pictured in a long shot walking along the banks of Afrin River, which dried up three months ago.
Mahmoud Abo Ras/TNH
Jafar al-Ali on the banks of Afrin River, which dried up earlier this year.

Water levels in the Afrin River and at the 17 April Dam (also called the Maydanki Dam) decreased dramatically earlier this year, partly due to low rainfall and minor cracks caused by the earthquake. The dam serves as a key source of water for drinking and irrigation in northern Aleppo. While the cracks did not cause any leaks, Afrin Council reportedly decided to release some of the dam water as a precautionary measure.

“Children in the area are getting more skin diseases, and there are a lot of insects and snakes in the stagnant pools left in the riverbed,” al-Ali told The New Humanitarian. “I found a snake in my tent recently. It’s a miracle it didn’t harm my children.”

He and other residents have been calling for a solution to the water shortage, but “the [local] authorities haven’t taken any action to solve this yet”, al-Ali said.

Khaled al-Aboud, 49, also sought refuge in Dayr Ballut after fleeing fighting in his hometown in the Hama governorate in 2019. Having worked in agriculture all his life, al-Aboud set up a farm near the Afrin River. The first years were good, he said, but the drought this summer devastated his farm. He had rented more land this year, expecting a bountiful harvest, until the river dried up.

“I was so surprised. Suddenly, we were experiencing drought. I couldn’t irrigate my crops anymore,” al-Aboud said. “We dug small wells near the river, but even these started drying up. I’ve had to abandon 13 out of 17 hectares.”

Together with a group of local farmers, he took the issue to the local council in Afrin city, requesting that more water be directed to the river in Dayr Ballut.

“Their response was that there is no water due to drought and damage after the earthquake, and because Türkiye has stopped its water supply due to its own shortages,” al-Aboud said.

In addition to the wells dug by the farmers, people have resorted to digging boreholes to tap into below-ground aquifers. But this has led to over-extraction and a reduction of water in the aquifers, as well as concerns over the safety of drinking water from the boreholes.

Attacks on water infrastructure

Regional politics may also be playing a part in the drastically low water levels in northwest Syria. Following the Afrin River’s sudden drying up, local media reported that Türkiye had released water from the Maydanki Dam in order to let it flow to the Reyhanlı Dam in southern Türkiye.

The New Humanitarian contacted the Directorate of Water Management at the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry for a comment about reports of withholding and syphoning water from Maydanki Dam, but did not receive a response. 

Türkiye has also struggled to cope with the extreme effects of climate change, as wildfires and drought spread across the country this summer. It is “entirely possible” that the country is diverting the flow from the Maydanki Dam for its own benefit, said Daoudy.

“Türkiye has used water as a weapon in many instances in the past, even before the current war,” she told The New Humanitarian. “But I don’t think they would have a strategic gain in cutting water for other purposes in the northwest.”

Northeast Syria, which is controlled by predominantly Kurdish rebel groups that Türkiye views as a regional threat, is a different story. Türkiye has severely restricted the flow of water to the northeast, and carried out attacks on infrastructure that have disrupted water and electricity supplies to millions of people, according to Human Rights Watch.

Recent Russian and Syrian airstrikes have also made it more difficult for civilians to access basic services, such as water, in northwest Syria, according to Daoudy.

“Russia and Syria target civilian infrastructure, if not deliberately water infrastructure,” she said. “I think weaponisation of natural resources is a constant feature in the Syrian arena, unfortunately.”

For Daoudy, the governments responsible for targeting infrastructure should be held accountable under international humanitarian law.

“We’re seeing it in Gaza too,” she said. “The Israelis are cutting Gazans off from access to water and food. This is equivalent to a war crime. Cutting civilians off from access to water in northern Syria is equivalent to a war crime too.” 

Local resilience

Meanwhile, in the areas surrounding the Qastoun reservoir in northwest Idlib and in northern Hama, local authorities have been working on increasing water availability.

Imad al-Khalaf, director of irrigation for the Water Resources Directorate of the Syrian Salvation government, run by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, told The New Humanitarian that the Qastoun reservoir has lost 85% of its water since 2017. Around 10,000 people in the local area rely on the dam for water.

Pictured are the remains of water within a dried up dam.
Mahmoud Abo Ras/TNH
The reservoir at the Qastoun Dam, which has lost 85% of its water since 2017, according to local authorities.

“The Syrian regime has [previously] bombed pumping stations bringing water from the Orontes River to the dam,” said al-Khalaf, who added that thousands of hectares of cultivated land have been lost in the area since the start of the conflict in 2011.

“We’re working on some partial solutions, including clearing the irrigation canals and waterways fed by springs in the area and directing them towards the dam and surrounding farms,” al-Khalaf added.

Despite these efforts, there is still not enough water available for farmers. “The only real solution would be to pump water from the Orontes River, but purchasing new pumps, providing electricity, and maintaining the irrigation networks would require more than $500,000,” al-Khalaf said.

Some local farmers are doing their best to cope with the limited water supply by changing their practices. Ratib Bakdash, 41, has a farm in Salla, a village in opposition-held western Idlib, in the catchment area of the Qastoun reservoir. Like many farmers there, he grows wheat because it needs significantly less water than other crops. But this year, even his hardier wheat crops couldn’t withstand the drought.

“My crops were severely damaged,” he said. “I lost around $1,000. All the farmers in the area have suffered huge losses because of the lack of water.”

As a result, Bakdash decided to reduce the areas he cultivates in order to cope with the drought, hoping a smaller crop might be successful next season.

Edited by Hanan Nasser and Eric Reidy.

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