Turkey is targeting northeast Syria’s water supply and it’s against the law

(NEW YORK) — On October 9th 2019, a Turkish airstrike hit the electrical line of Al’louk water station, cutting off the water supply to over 400,000 people in the Al-Hasekah governorate of northeast Syria, including water access for the nearby Al Hol and Arishah refugee camps.

The airstrike, and ensuing clashes, have left almost half a million people in Al-Hasekah governorate without access to a stable water supply. Although intermittent repairs and water tankers have helped to mitigate disaster, a local resident Mohammed Mehabad told researchers at The Rojava Information Center that, “The water smells like rotten meat.”

The Al’louk water station was the first among many civilian targets during the first six weeks of Operation Spring Peace, a cross-border military operation led by the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) against local Kurdish militias (YPG / PKK) and the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The targeting of civilian infrastructure violates Article 52 of the Geneva Conventions, which condemns attacks on general civilian targets; as well as Article 54 of the Geneva Conventions, which protects objects indispensable to the survival of a civilian population, including, but not limited to foodstuffs and drinking water installations.

Satellite image taken on October 15th. No visible damage. Red square highlights damaged wall around water pumping compound. Source: @obretix
Satellite image provided highlighting 600m distance between Allouk Water Station and Turkish border. Source: Yandex Maps

“The immediate targeting of Al’louk water station on October 9th has had a greater humanitarian impact than any other action during the Turkish invasion of northeast Syria,” says a Syria-based researcher at The Rojava Information Center. “The Al-Hasekah governorate has received over 131,000 displaced people during the first six weeks of the Turkish invasion, and the interruption of water services has put civilians’ health and safety at great risk.”

Members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the al-Hasekah Water Resources Management Directorate have attempted to restore pump operations at Al’louk water station on ten separate occasions. In some cases, pro-Turkish militias have denied access to Al’louk water station, preventing vital repairs. In other cases, successful repairs were subsequently damaged by military clashes.

Members of the Syrian Red Crescent repair damaged electrical lines outside of Al’louk Water Station on October 14th. Source: Khaled Erksoussi, General Secretary of Syrian Red Crescent
Members of the Syrian Red Crescent make additional repairs to the electrical lines outside of Al’louk Water Station on October 19th. Source: Khaled Erksoussi, General Secretary of Syrian Red Crescent

According to the latest UNOCHA report, repair teams successfully connected Alouk water station to local power lines on November 13th and the station currently operates at reduced capacity.

The considerable gap between supply and demand has left local residents with few good options: “The Autonomous Administration of Al-Hasekah repurposed an old water station in al-Himme in order to supply unpotable water to the local population,” said Sozdar Ahmed, co-chair of the water office in Hasekah Canton. Although this alternative source covers one third of Al Hasekah’s need, locals have reported that the new water supply is visibly dirty and smells like rotten meat.

Other residents have increased their consumption of bottled water imported from Iraq, driving prices up by over two hundred percent.

Those who cannot afford bottled water can also turn to water tankers supplied by The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNICEF, who have adapted their humanitarian response efforts to include daily water distributions in al-Hasakeh city, as well as in Al Hol and Areesha refugee camps.

This is not the first time that a Turkish-led military operation that has directly targeted water infrastructure. In March 2018, Turkish Armed Forces also seized control of the main dam and water pumping stations in Afrin as part of ‘Operation Olive Branch’.

“The biggest difficulty that we are facing is that water has been cut off,” said Fawaz Abdullah, a resident of al-Hasekah governorate. “Water is the most essential thing for life. Turkey’s aim is not only a military defeat: they are making war against the civilian population.”

I report on borders, resources and human security. Currently @Columbia | SIPA. Formerly @Mercy Corps

I report on borders, resources and human security. Currently @Columbia | SIPA. Formerly @Mercy Corps