Dams Turkey built on the ancient rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which define the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, have led to extreme droughts and historic lows in water levels downstream in Iraqi and Syrian territory.
Water levels in the Tishreen Dam Reservoir in northern Syria’s Manbij have reduced by 85 percent, and the dam is at risk of complete shutdown, according to local reports.
As per a 1987 agreement, Turkey must pump at least 500 cubic metres of water per second from the Euphrates towards Syria. Current levels are down to 200 cubic metres per second.
In the majority-Kurdish north, Syrians are struggling to maintain their livelihoods. Fisherman Ismail Hilal, who lived near Lake Assad his whole life, told AFP that he had to quit as the lake was no longer able to sustain fishing.
“In the past we could take in 50 kilos of fish a day,” fisherman Ali Shebli said. “But now, we barely get one or two kilos, and sometimes nothing.”
Since 2022, water levels dropped by four metres in the lake, Dutch group PAX found.
While some of the water loss is due to rising temperatures and climate change, the most significant factor is Turkey’s water policies.
In Iraq, the river Sarchinar, which was once home to willow trees and foxes, has all but dried up. The river no longer flows in the scorching Iraqi summer, and even in spring time, it can only manage a “slim current, meandering through the deepest parts of the gravel bed”, Sulaimaniyah-based journalist Winthrop Rodgers wrote for Foreign Policy.
Both Syria and Iraq are among the countries most vulnerable to climate breakdown, according to the UN IOM. Due to dry winters not allowing ground waters a chance to replenish themselves, Iraqi Kurds are having to dig wells up to 700 metres deep, Rodgers said.
Three of Turkey’s largest dams, the Atatürk, Keban and Karakaya, are on the Euphrates, along with several others. The Tigris also has six Turkish dams restricting her waters, with the most recent Ilısu Dam also flooding the 10,000-year-old settlement Hasankeyf when it went into operation in 2021.
Currently operational dams on the Tigris range from 200 million cubic metres to 1,900 million cubic metres in reservoir capacity. Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) consists of 22 dams built on the twin rivers.
The country has also built various dams on smaller rivers as part of its anti-terror operations, reportedly to cut off paths used by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters. Back in 2011, one of these dams caused several rivers in northern Iraq to dry up. Villagers in Haftanin, Iraq at the time were forced to abandon their orchards.
Iraq regularly demands Turkey increase water flow into the country, and did so again most recently in March. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan allowed only one month of increased flow, despite the Tigris holding a mere 35 percent of its average over the past century last year. As Erdoğan announced the increase, he also voiced Turkey’s demand that Iraq designate the PKK a terrorist organisation.