Weaponising Access to Water in Syria, Putting Millions at Risk
Middle East and Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
Syria is facing one of the most profound humanitarian crises in the world for over a decade: access to water. The issue of water scarcity in Syria results from numerous intricate elements, leading to millions of Syrians depending on unsafe water sources for an extended period. Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish attacks on Kurdish-held areas of Northeast Syria have caused severe damage to infrastructures, resulting in disruptions in accessing water and electricity for millions of people. 
Starting from October 6, Turkish forces carried out attacks in northern Syria, following the Turkish government's declaration that targets associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (“the PKK”) and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia are considered ‘legitimate targets’ for Turkish forces due to the PKK’s claim of responsibility for the Ankara bombing.  Among the targets of the Turkish army were water pumping and electricity stations, especially the Sweidiya power plant, the north Qamishli electricity transfer situation and the Alouk water station, which were left unable to operate resulting in disruptions in access to water and electricity. 
The Syrian people have been grappling with water access issues for a long time. Water infrastructure has often been exploited as a weapon during conflicts in Syria, resulting in severe repercussions for civilians, as Marwa Daoudy, a Georgetown University international relations professor, stated.  Unfortunately, Syria has witnessed recurrent waterborne disease outbreaks due to disruptions in clean water supplies, with instances such as cholera pandemics in 1993 and 1997, the resurgence of polio in 2013-2014, and 2022, a cholera pandemic declaration by both the Damascus Health Ministry and a Kurdish-led region in the northeast, all stemming from the severe impact of the Syrian civil war on water resources, public health, and sanitation.  As of January 2023, only half of the water and sanitation systems and hospitals were operational, whereas water purification facilities were destroyed or inactive due to power and fuel shortages, and armed groups were weaponising water, forcing some communities to prioritise drinking water over basic hygiene practices. 
In addition to conflicts, environmental issues add up to the water crisis in Syria. Droughts and declining Euphrates River water levels, with Syrian ecosystems bearing the scars of years of war, including contamination of water resources and fields by landmines and explosive remnants of war, as well as the destruction of natural habitats in conflict-affected areas, resulted in a multifaceted crisis in the country. 
Similar to its reasons, the water crisis has a negative effect on almost every aspect of life. The inaccessibility to water causes significant declines in crop yields and income, a rise in waterborne diseases and malnutrition prevalence, population displacement, and heightened incidents of gender-based violence (GBV), with women and children being particularly affected. 
'The right to water entitles everyone to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.' 
As important as it is, the right to water is protected by various international law instruments. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is an essential component of an adequate standard of living and that the right is closely linked to the realisation of other economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as an essential aspect of sustainable development.  Subsequently, the United Nations General Assembly, in its Resolution 64/292, affirmed the human right to access clean water and sanitation’s crucial role in upholding all human rights, urging States and international organisations to work to ensure these rights.  Goal 6 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals aims to ‘Ensuring access to water and sanitation for all’. 
Unlike human rights law, international humanitarian law does not contain provisions focused specifically on water; however, it does provide indirect protection since access to water may be affected by conflict and right to health is a fundamental right of persons protected by humanitarian law.  Moreover, there are provisions that focus on the protection of water stations during conflicts, one of them being The IVth Hague Convention article 23(a)  and the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions. 
The right to water in Syria is a critical issue that requires the responsibility of all parties involved in the conflict, including the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration and Türkiye, which is carrying out military operations in the northeast region. It is important to note that weaponising access to water, as has been done in the past during internal conflicts in Syria, is a violation of international human rights and humanitarian law. Therefore, currently, Türkiye should not only refrain from attacking these infrastructures but also put additional effort into protecting them. Addressing these concerns is vital to guarantee that the affected people have access to essential services and that the right to water is maintained in compliance with international legal obligations.
Sources and further reading
 Human Rights Watch, ‘Northeast Syria: Turkish Strikes Disrupt Water, Electricity Attacks Exacerbate Ongoing Humanitarian Crisis for Millions’ (October 26, 2023) <Northeast Syria: Turkish Strikes Disrupt Water, Electricity Attacks Exacerbate Ongoing Humanitarian Crisis for Millions> accessed 4 November 2023.
 Reuters, ‘Turkey says it killed 58 Kurdish militants in northern Syria’ (October, 7, 2023) <Turkey says it killed 58 Kurdish militants in northern Syria> accessed 4 November 2023.
 ReliefWeb ‘Escalation of Hostilities targeting Critical Civilian Infrastructures in Northeast Syria’ (October 6, 2023) <Escalation of Hostilities targeting Critical Civilian Infrastructures in Northeast Syria> accessed 4 November 2023.
 Geneva Solutions, ‘War or Peace? In Syria, Water Flows Both Ways’ (No Date Specified) <War or Peace? In Syria, Water Flows Both Ways> accessed 4 November 2023.
 The Century Foundation, ‘Cholera in the Time of Assad: How Syria’s Water Crisis Caused an Avoidable Outbreak’ (January 24, 2023) <Cholera in the Time of Assad: How Syria’s Water Crisis Caused an Avoidable Outbreak> accessed 4 November 2023.
 Middle East Institute, ‘How Northern Syria’s Triple Water Crisis Is Exacerbating Its People’s Woes’ (September 19, 2023) <How Northern Syria’s Triple Water Crisis Is Exacerbating Its People’s Woes> accessed 4 November 2023.
 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs ‘Humanitarian Needs Overview Syrian Arab Republic’ (December 2022) <Humanitarian Needs Overview Syrian Arab Republic> accessed 4 November 2023.
 United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner ‘About Water and Sanitation’ (No Date Specified) <About Water and Sanitation> accessed 4 November 2023.
 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Art 11(1) <International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights> accessed 4 November 2023.
 United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 64/292 <Resolution 64/292> accessed 4 November 2023.
 Sustainable Development Goals ‘Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all’ (No Date Specified) <Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all> accessed 4 November 2023.
 Ameur Zemmali, The International Committee of Red Cross, ‘The Protection of Water In Times of Armed Conflict’ <The Protection of Water In Times of Armed Conflict> accessed 4 November 2023.
 The IVth Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Art. 23 (a) <The IVth Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land> accessed 4 November 2023.
The relevant part of article 23 reads as follows:
‘In addition to the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially forbidden
(a) To employ poison or poisoned weapons;’
While the article does not specifically mention water, the ban encompasses this crucial resource, given its broad applicability and the fact that it is not limited to weapons. This provision is included in this article in order to illustrate a framework of international humanitarian law, emphasising the importance of safeguarding water resources during armed conflicts. Therefore, it may not be directly applicable in the current status of the conflict in Syria, but it underscores the significance of upholding the right to water and ensuring its protection. For further reading please see:
Ameur Zemmali, The International Committee of Red Cross, ‘The Protection of Water In Times of Armed Conflict’ <The Protection of Water In Times of Armed Conflict> accessed 4 November 2023.
 The Fourth Geneva Convention, Art 147 <The Fourth Geneva Convention> accessed 4 November 2023.
“Grave breaches to which the preceding Article relates shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the present Convention: wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power, or wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.”