Syria, Israel, and Water: Prelude to a War?

We all have heard the moralistic aphorism: "Man cannot live by bread alone." However, in the Middle East the proper aphorism is: “Nations in the region cannot live on oil alone.”

Water is, in fact, a much more valued commodity there. Conflicts and wars have arisen and may yet arise between nations in the region over the control of water resources.

In late 1964, Syria and Israel were close to war when the Syrian government attempted to divert the rivers Hazbani and Banias, which flow into the Jordan River. Syria was determined to prevent Israel from using the waters of the Jordan River for its national carrier. The Syrians planned to direct the waters of the Hazbani away from Israel by building a canal that would carry the water of the Banias River into Jordan.

Nearly a quarter of a million farmers in the Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria have, in the last few years, been forced to abandon their farms and migrate to urban centers due to the scarcity of water. The Euphrates River, Syria’s primary source of water, is drying up.

The Euphrates source is in Turkey, and the Turks are limiting the outflow of the river’s waters to Syria and Iraq. The rapidly increasing Turkish population has led the Turkish government to create a number of dams which have siphoned off much of the Euphrates waters.

According to the findings of a special study by the United Nations, the Euphrates is expected to become completely dry outside Turkey’s boundaries. The scarce water Syria does receive is brackish and harmful to the fish population, and it has destroyed the livelihood of local fishermen.

The frequency of droughts in these past few years has had a particular effect on Syria, threatening to shut its other important water source -- the Aasi (Orontes) River. The river is drying up, becoming saltier and contaminated. As a result, the fish are dying off and with it the entire fishing industry.

Syria has been a major farm commodities producer in the region. Sales of wheat, olive oil, cattle, and fruit and vegetables contribute 20 percent of its $45 billion GDP, and about half of its 20 million people earn their income from agriculture.

The country's water sources are its rivers and 420,000 ground wells, half of which were dug illegally over recent decades. The drought and mismanagement of water resources have hit agriculture hard, especially in the Hasakah (Kurdish) region bordering Iraq. Hasakah's wheat production is forecast to drop to 892,000 tons this year, compared to a planned 1.9 million tons.

Most of the farmers leaving the villages are Kurds, and they have accused the Syrian Baathist regime of deliberately ignoring their plight. For several years now, these Kurdish refugees have been living in tents near the big cities. About one half million Kurds have been made stateless in recent decades on top of the new refugees.

Considering these facts, it becomes apparent that the Assad regime is carrying out an anti-Kurdish policy. While the Syrian regime has ethnically cleansed the Kurds, it has also mismanaged the economy and agriculture in particular.