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Turkish airstrikes in northeast Syria leave millions short of power, fuel, and water

‘The escalation threatens to destabilise an already volatile region, which is sheltering hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people from across Syria.’

Damages to Zarbeh oil plant in Tirbespiyê, north of Syria after a missile attack by Turkish forces. Photo taken on January 15, 2024. Ivan Hasseeb/TNH
The al-Zarba oil field in northeast Syria, pictured after it was hit by an airstrike in mid-January 2024.

Months of Turkish airstrikes in northeast Syria have left more than a million people without power and double that number with no reliable access to water. Beyond the numbers, the cascading impacts have hit almost all parts of life, from homes and restaurants to petrol stations, buses, and bakeries. 

Starting in early October, an initial series of heavy Turkish drone strikes knocked out civilian infrastructure and reportedly killed dozens – apparent retaliation for a suicide bombing outside a government building in Ankara that killed nine people.

The strikes have intensified since. According to the NES NGO Forum, a collection of aid groups that work in the region, attacks in December and January struck healthcare facilities as well as roads that are key for aid access, while a series of strikes in mid-January hit even more power stations.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Türkiye considers to be a terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the 1 October suicide bombing. Türkiye considers the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military wing of the Kurdish administration that runs much of northeast Syria, to be an offshoot of the PKK. 

Türkiye has bombed Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq fairly regularly over the past few years in its campaign against the PKK, but activists and aid groups are warning that the latest escalation is more intense and longer-lasting than in the past, threatening massive fuel and water shortages, as well as aid access in a region where many already needed help.

While the past rounds of major hostilities and strikes on critical civilian infrastructure have had severe impacts, the compounding devastation caused by the latest round of strikes cannot be overstated,” the NES Forum said in a late January statement

“The escalation threatens to destabilise an already volatile region, which is sheltering hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people from across Syria,” Izzadin Saleh, the executive director of local NGO Synergy Associations for Victims, told The New Humanitarian. As part of its work advocating for justice for victims of the war in north and northeast Syria, the local NGO documents airstrikes and their impact.

“The attacks have deprived millions of electricity, water, and cooking gas and destroyed infrastructure and facilities vital for the survival of civilians in the region,” Saleh added. 

No power, no gas to cook with

Damaged power stations mean some households are going more than two weeks at a time without more than a few hours a day of government-provided electricity. 

Instead, they are increasingly turning to privately owned generators, which supply power to paying subscribers. These have become increasingly common throughout Syria’s nearly 13-year war. Now, they are the only option, and they are out of financial reach for many. 

“We are relying on neighbourhood generators,” said Majed Maroun, a 55-year-old retired teacher in Qamishli. But it’s not enough. “They provide each household a few amperes at $3 per ampere, which isn’t enough to power electrical appliances like the heater, washing machine, or even an iron. Three or four amperes are just enough to power lighting, the television, and the refrigerator.”

The October airstrikes rendered the critical Swediyeh Gas Station, the only producer of gas for domestic use in northeast Syria, completely non-operational, impacting over 920,000 people.

“The attacks destroyed a big part of the station, forcing the autonomous administration to import gas from the Kurdish region of Iraq, and selling each canister for the equivalent of $10, compared to $1 before that.”

Shirzad Alou, 48, who sells cooking gas in a poor neighbourhood in the city of Qamishli, near the Syria-Türkiye border, said the attacks have greatly reduced the availability and hiked the prices of cooking gas. The autonomous administration distributes 24kg canisters at subsidised prices to dealers like him, or directly to citizens via local councils. 

“We used to get our canisters from the Swediyeh station, near the city of al-Malikiyah on the Syria-Iraq border,” he told The New Humanitarian. “The attacks destroyed a big part of the station, forcing the autonomous administration to import gas from the Kurdish region of Iraq, and selling each canister for [the equivalent of] $10, compared to $1 before that.”

To make matters worse, he added, some private sellers have been hawking their remaining stock at $30 to $40 a canister, a price that is out of reach for most people.

Shirine Hamou, a resident of the city of al-Hassakeh, northeastern Syria, said people like her can no longer afford the high prices of cooking gas, so they’re turning to dangerous alternatives like kerosene burners. While the Kurdish administration has now stopped producing or distributing diesel and kerosene, there is still some on the market.

“Kerosene is cheaper than cooking gas, which people are unable to afford,” Hamou told The New Humanitarian. 

“We used it to heat the food or cook, but it is very dangerous because of the low quality of the kerosene, and the way it is stored in the burner,” she explained. “My burner even exploded half an hour after I turned it on. Fortunately, my children were not nearby.” 

‘We have water for only three hours every two days’

The region’s most important water station, Alouk, is completely out of service, meaning clean water no longer reaches many local reservoirs and boreholes. This is not the first time it has been shut down, leading to water shortages that are compounded by drought linked to climate change. In total, the NES Forum says more than two million people have limited access to safe water due to the lack of electricity.

“We used to get water three or four days a week, throughout the day, but now we have water for only three hours every two days.”

In addition, some farmers in the region say that since last month they have been unable to irrigate their fields. They say rivers are newly polluted with oil, a development they blame on strikes on oil facilities. 

Residents say the Kurdish administration has been relying on generators to pump clean water to its towns and villages, but it’s not enough.

“We used to get water three or four days a week, throughout the day, but now we have water for only three hours every two days,” Fatima Haji, a 42-year-old engineer from Qamishli, told The New Humanitarian. “The water pressure being pumped by the generators is now very weak, which means it cannot fill up reservoirs on rooftops of buildings that are four storeys high.” 

The scarcity has forced residents to economise their water usage or buy drinking water bottles for daily use such as washing, showering, cooking, and cleaning, but these are also dwindling in the market, she added. 

Fuel shortages and healthcare challenges 

Transportation has become more expensive too. Before the attacks, the Kurdish administration sold subsidised fuel to petrol stations and public transport operators, distributing it daily. Now, station owners say distributions of subsidised fuel are less frequent, and irregular.

Khaldoun Ahmed, who owns a gas station in the city of al-Hassakeh, said he has received only two shipments of subsidised fuel since early October, and predicted that some petrol stations will be forced to shut down if the situation continues. 

“The quantity we are receiving is not enough to meet the needs of people, who are queuing overnight and sleeping in their cars in front of the station ahead of distribution,” he said.

Taxi drivers have waited in long queues to try to get their allocated petrol. Others have gone on strike.

“Drivers have to buy high-quality fuel from the black market at the inflated price of $0.20 to $0.30 per litre, which is too high, especially if you compare it to the ride fare of $0.35 per kilometre that was set before the attacks. We demanded that the administration increase the fare but they refused. This is why we refuse to work unless we get diesel at cheaper prices,” Dejouar Fahmy, a public taxi driver, told The New Humanitarian. Fahmy operates between Qamishli and the town of Amuda, in al-Hassakeh province, about 30 kilometres away.

Others worry they will have to raise fares to cover the expenses of buying fuel on the black market.

“I bought [subsidised] diesel fuel from the black market at $0.25 per litre to operate my minibus from Qamishli to al-Malikiyah,” said minibus driver Jassem Al-Khodarji, 66. “But I’ll have to triple the ticket’s price to make some profit. It’s either that or I have to stop working, unless we find diesel at cheaper prices.”

The NES Forum has raised concerns that the transportation and healthcare sectors will soon be even more affected: Its late January report said that December damage to medical facilities has disrupted the oxygen supply to more than a dozen private and public hospitals, and other healthcare centres are also impacted, “increasing the risks of water-borne diseases, and jeopardising vital laboratory work and x-ray services”.

While almost everyone across the region have been affected in some way – farmers, taxi drivers, regular people just trying to turn the lights and taps on – there is special concern for vulnerable groups, like displaced people or those who were already struggling to get by because of years of economic collapse: The northeast is home to around 660,000 displaced people, around 140,000 in camps. Most were forced to flee their homes by violence during Syria’s war, and many are unable to return to buildings that are destroyed or unsafe. 

While aid groups have been stepping in to distribute water, fix boreholes, and keep infrastructure going, the NES Forum has warned that “scale of damage far supersedes the humanitarian community’s capacity to sustain emergency life-saving service provision”.

But, as Hiba Zayadin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, noted in a statement earlier this month, the world’s eyes are elsewhere.

“As the crisis in northeast Syria escalates, action is needed to mitigate the humanitarian impacts on the civilian population,” she wrote. “Türkiye should immediately stop targeting critical civilian infrastructure, respect international humanitarian law and hold to account those responsible for serious violations. All countries need to address the plight of the region's populace even if other conflicts are dominating the headlines.”

People like Band Hussein, who owns a bakery in al-Malikiyah, worry it will just get worse. While the attacks have hit silos and mills, private and subsidised bakeries have managed to keep prices stable.

Hussein can’t see this lasting for long. “Fuel will become more scarce and prices will soar,” he said, adding: “We will be forced to increase the price of bread.”

This story was published in collaboration with Egab, a news service empowering local journalists across the Middle East and Africa. Edited by Hanan Nasser and Annie Slemrod.

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