The water crisis in Northeast Syria (NES) spans multiple dimensions – a meteorological drought, reduced flow in the Euphrates River, and a long-term reduction in groundwater levels. Together, these have led to a severe deterioration in the humanitarian situation. The drought began in late 2020 with a delayed onset of winter rains and low rainfall, later made worse by heatwaves and an early end to rains in the spring of 2021. Water levels in the Euphrates then began to decline rapidly starting early 2021. REACH and others reported on this in the summer and autumn months of 2021, noting the severe decline in access to clean water, electricity, and the impact on agriculture.
This briefing note serves as an update on the humanitarian situation in light of the continued water crisis. Specifically, rainfall levels have remained substantially below long-term average levels in the current agricultural season. Thus, the European Drought Observatory has warned in March 2022 of a medium to high risk of drought impact on agriculture – for comparison, no areas had a high risk in March 2021. Given the duration of the drought, it is likely that not only soils and surface water will be impacted, but also groundwater levels. This is particularly problematic as Syria has seen decades of overexploited groundwater, leading to severe reductions in groundwater levels. This is mainly due to agricultural usage, with certain crops and areas of NES relying heavily on irrigation. The Euphrates water levels have improved since the beginning of the 2022, with March levels in lake Assad around a meter higher than in 2021, though still two meters lower than in 2020. However, the situation remains vulnerable as climate change and water usage are causing further declines in water flow. As the Euphrates is the single largest source of freshwater in Syria as well as being an important source of electricity, these developments are highly relevant to the wellbeing of people in NES.
After widespread initial reporting, there has been no recent update on this situation. Despite the water shortages commonly lessening during the winter months due to this being the main rainfall period and temperatures falling, we expect to see issues resurfacing during the summer months, typically beginning in June. To ensure that humanitarian actors can prepare and react in a timely manner, as well as to highlight ongoing issues, REACH has created a briefing note to fill this gap.