GeoBrief: The Water Conflict in the Levant and Contamination Challenges

The rivers of Euphrates and Orontes and their tributaries are transboundary water bodies. They regularly flow through key settlements, forming an integral source of water for Levantine countries. Napoleon once said: “An army marches on its stomach”. Resources are of utmost importance during war. But what happens when the same army does not have access to water?

Currently, Syria’s main sources of water include the Euphrates River, which passes through neighbouring Turkey. As the longest river in the Levant, it sources in the Karasu and Murat Rivers (known as Western and Eastern Euphrates) in Turkey. The Euphrates flows all the way through Syria to Iraq and empties in the Persian Gulf.

It has served as a strategic point for Turkish ground forces to launch attacks against the YPG. Turkey also takes advantage of the source of the river falling in its territory. It has built dams that control the natural flow and collection of water, without the consent of downstream Syria and Iraq. Combined with the high drought the Levant generally experiences, the war in Syria also cuts water access to Iraq.

In indigo: Euphrates flowing through Turkey to Syria and Iraq

Simultaneously, the Orontes River (also known as Assi in Arabic) begins near the Jbel esh-Shar’iyyeh Eastern mountains’ Beqaa Valley in Lebanon in the village of Al-Labweh near the Litani River. As it passes on to Syrian territory, it feeds Lake Homs near the town of Homs. It has banks by Hama, and flows through Jisr ash-Shugur in Idlib, before reaching Turkey’s Antakya in the Hatay Province. Its mouth empties in the Mediterranean Sea.

Drinkable water in Lebanon is higher in quantity compared to Syria. Water is increasingly contaminated, with the Litani River Authority, following UNICEF reports, confirming that all water sources have been contaminated. This invariably affects Syria and Turkey as well. The ongoing conflict has led to mass population displacement, with the Syrian inhabitants near the Orontes forced to neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey.

orontes river

Earlier in December 2018, water orchids invaded the Orontes River in Antakya. The orchids first originated in neighbouring Syria. An invasive species in the region, they are widely perceived to be a serious pest that can rapidly reproduce and use up all of the oxygen in the Antakya basin. As this is not the first time water orchids invade the river, plants, water organisms, and even humans are increasingly prone to contamination risks.

Despite water shortages, the Assad government has been unable to address the issue effectively, as it is largely attributed to external actors, including Turkey and Lebanon. Further research and analysis on water resources in Syria have been contained since 2011. It is worth mentioning that the continuation of the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s actions in Syrian territory against YPG fighters further exacerbate the environmental catastrophe, exposing settlements at further risk.

By Petros Petrikkos. Twitter: @PetrosPetrikkos

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