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Ever since devastating twin earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria on the night of 5-6 February killing over 50,000 people and displacing millions, the world’s attention has once again returned to the Turkey-Syria border. A catastrophe for all affected, it has been intensified for Kurds in Turkey and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES or NES, also known as Rojava) as a result of Turkey and Syria blocking emergency conveys from delivering aid to Kurdish communities in northern Syria. This is just the latest manifestation of the ongoing oppression of the Kurds – the world’s largest nation without homeland.

And there is another crisis hitting Kurdish communities in NES; Turkey has been restricting the flow of water into an area already hit hard by climate change. As a result, in a place that relies heavily on agriculture, crops are failing, farmers are falling into debt and people are being forced to leave because of recurring drought.

But there is a ray of hope, particularly from the women of the area. A project called Water for Rojava, organised by the UK-based Solidarity Economy Association, crowd-funded £105,000 (US$127,000) in mid-2022 to assist women’s farming cooperatives re-irrigate lands suffering from drought. “We want to secure a good life for the women who will live in the village. There are 13 women running this project. Now we are digging and looking for water,” writes a spokeswoman from the Women’s Economic Committee in Derik, north-east Rojava, about a farming co-operative being assisted by the Committee.

With support from Water for Rojava, the Women’s Economic Committee has irrigated 75 hectares on a 450-hectare former state-run farm near Derik (estimated population 40,000) and 50 hectares near al-Hasakah (with a metropolitan population of over 600,000). “With water these communities can flourish again,” explains Sami Miran (we are using a pseudonym to protect his identity), who visited NES in October 2022 as part of delegation from Water for Rojava.

“Democracy without the state”

Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria declared autonomy in 2012, during the second year of the ongoing Syrian war, in what is known as the ‘Rojava Revolution’. Building on principles from the Kurdish liberation struggle, the inhabitants of NES organise through democratic confederalism, “a social, political, and economic model of self-administration of different peoples, pioneered by women and the youth,” Kurdish academic and activist Dilar Dirik explained in ROAR magazine in 2016. “It is democracy without the state.”

In Rojava – which has an estimated population of four to five million people – political decisions are devolved to gender-balanced local councils, instead of power deferred to the nation state.

Women’s liberation and ethnic cohesion are key in Rojava. It officially changed its name from Rojava (meaning ‘West’ in Kurdish) to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria in September 2018, to reflect the mosaic of ethnicities and religions that live in the area. Women are central to the revolution; in addition to gender parity on all levels of decision-making, there is a strong commitment to ending violence and oppression against women.

Before the 2012 revolution, the Syrian government controlled massive state-run farms, part of which is what the co-operative near Derik use. “Standing there, all you see is the land stretching to the horizon,” recalls Miran, who visited the 450-hectare farm.

The Women’s Economic Committee, one of the regional-wide organising committees in NES, supports women’s co-operatives to rejuvenate these lands. “Women do everything from digging wells and pumping the water, to building climate resilient infrastructure, such as shade in warehouses or planting climate resilient crops. Then, women transport the crops [including wheat, fruit, vegetables and lentils] to market and sell it. As they work in co-operatives, there is no boss or underling. Profits are shared,” Miran says.

Man-made drought and water wars

“Drought is being caused by Turkey, the climate crisis and the local water policies [of the Syrian state before 2012],” explains Ercan Ayboga, co-author of Revolution in Rojava and an activist within the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement.

Ayboga says that Syria under the Ba’ath Party regime (which has been led by the al-Assad family since 1971) followed a policy of industrial farming that included full-scale deforestation and digging tens of thousands of wells. However, he suggests, it is possible to reverse this situation: “With vegetation, especially forests, water remains in the nature. It does not run off.”

Miran, who grew up in the area, reflects on what life used to be like in the ‘breadbasket of the Levant’: “This rich soil once grew olives, wheat, lentils, peas, cotton, beans and chickpeas – basically anything you sowed. It fed not only Syria, but Jordan, Turkey and further afield.”

Turkey stands accused of weaponising water against the Kurds by restricting its flow into NES. The Turkish state denies this, despite evidence such as Turkey’s dam building programme flooding and destroying Kurdish cities in Turkey, for example Hasankeyf in 2020.

“Turkey using water as a weapon is unique. I do not know of another state cutting water in such a systemic way for such long periods,” says Ayboga.

The Euphrates, a river of great regional and historical importance, begins in Turkey before flowing through Syria and Iraq, and is an essential life source for both downstream states. In 1987, Turkey committed to ensure that 500 cubic metres of water per second would flow into Syria. This is approximately half of what flowed prior to the 1960s, when Turkey started building extensive dams, irrigation and hydro-electric power.

Ayboga says that between 1987 and 2012 Turkey failed to keep this agreement only once, with the filling of its Atatürk Dam in the early 1990s. However, “since 2012, Turkey has only released 200-250 cubic metres per second, especially in the spring and summer, depriving [northern Syria of] water for irrigation.”

Since 2016, Turkey and Turkish-backed militias have occupied and attacked northern Syria, including occupying the canton of Afrin, displacing over 300,000 people. The Turkish-backed groups have since faced allegations of ethnic cleansing and war crimes. These attacks are part of a longer history of oppression against the Kurds that go back to the formation of the Turkish state in 1923. Turkey defines the Kurdish liberation struggle inside of Turkey as “terrorism” and it uses the same argument to attack NES .

Health concerns

In January 2023, Euphrates flow averaged 125 cubic metres per second, according to Hammoud al-Hammadi, an administrator at the Tishrin Dam in NES, the second biggest dam in Syria, speaking to the North Press Agency.

As a result of water deprivation, hydro-electric power generation – NES’s primary source of electricity – is grinding to a halt. According to Miran, people in the area now rely on fuel-powered generators, which cause pollution and respiratory illness. “If the Euphrates flowed [efficiently] that problem would disappear overnight.”

In fact, water scarcity is causing a number of health dangers. On 10 September 2022, a cholera epidemic was declared in Syria, impacting both NES and other parts of Syria. After over a decade of war, infrastructural damage is a major problem. One of UNICEF’s primary concerns is the Alouk pumping station, now in Turkish-occupied territory. They estimate that nearly one million people in NES rely on this source for potable water. During all of 2022, UNICEF reported that for 128 days, this station failed to pump any water at all, while it only partially worked on 54 days. To prevent further cholera epidemics, UNICEF proposes a “UN-led monitoring mechanism [at Alouk] to ensure uninterrupted services, and to provide maintenance support as required, which is currently under discussion.”

The Water for Rojava delegation visited Al-Hasakah city, a hotspot for the cholera epidemic, and one of the places where women are digging wells. “Cholera levels were dropping as they treated water from tankers with chloride,” Miran explains.

“The city needs the Alouk water station, but it often pumps no water. This is the situation since October 2019, when it became controlled by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army. Instead, locals were drawing water from the Xabûr River. This was full of sewage from Turkey.”

Ground-up and geopolitical solutions

Another way that NES is attempting to resolve the water crisis is by reversing the legacy of Syrian government policies that focused on mono-cash-crops, especially wheat and cotton for export. “There are discussions across NES also about reducing [water] usage. The Economic Committees are also encouraging [fruit] tree planting for your own needs. Organisers are planting small forests around cities,” Miran says.

Ayboga thinks Turkey will not change course unless President Recep Erdoğan loses the planned May 2023 elections: “Their current strategy is to destroy infrastructure and reduce people’s access to water and food so that people get fed up, change allegiances or leave; they think that the fewer people who live [in NES] the better.”

Turkey has defended the legitimacy of its massive dam building, irrigation and other water projects as ways to bring economic development. Yet the Turkish government also denies a litany of abuses against Kurds and its evermore hardline authoritarian policies. These include killing Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the banning of opposition parties, attacks on women’s rights, and a clampdown against critical media.

Ayboga suggests the US and its European allies can pressure Turkey to stop withholding water: “We know the US allowed Turkey to attack [border towns] Serê Kaniyê and Tell Abyad in 2019. Yet in the last months, reports suggest thatthe US pressured Turkey to halt its latest invasion [deeper into northern Syria]. The US and EU want a balance of forces [in the Syrian War]. They do not want Turkey to destroy this project [NES], but they do not want it to become too strong – politically, militarily or economically – either.”