According to some scientists, the water that covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface predated the birth of the planet. Its originated as ice particles floating in outer space more than 4.6 billion years ago even before the birth of the sun. When scientists explore the outer regions of space today in the hope of finding an inhabitable planet, one of the first things they look for is the presence of water. For some of the wealthiest and most powerful men on earth, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, they represent the possibility of a refuge from a dying planet where war and environmental destruction threaten a sixth extinction. It is a supreme irony that Syria, which was part of the Fertile Crescent that gave birth to the earliest civilizations, is a microcosm of the very processes that threaten the planet as a whole.
The Euphrates and Tigris rivers that originate in Turkey and flow southeasterly into Syria and Iraq were critical to fostering the growth of early civilization through the use of irrigation that has been a double-edged sword even to this day. Despite serving the needs of agriculture, irrigation leads to salinization and hence the ruin of the very activity it was designed to support. The earliest agricultural collapse in Mesopotamia (ancient Greek meaning between two rivers, specifically the Euphrates and Tigris) occurred around 4000 BC, once again between 1300 and 900 BC, and then once more again around the seventh and eighth centuries AD.
Salinization is a problem for large-scale agriculture based on irrigation but particularly in semi-arid regions like Syria. All naturally occurring water, including from rainfall, contains salts. but it would be much less of a problem in places like Great Britain where heavy rainfalls wash away the salt deposits that remain in the soil from irrigated sources. In Syria, the salt accumulates and forces the farmer to constantly search for fresh supplies, digging deeper and deeper to draw from the groundwater. Like every nation on earth, including the USA, the aquifers are not an inexhaustible supply. Once our Ogallala aquifer is exhausted in the American Midwest, it will take 6,000 years to replenish. In search of groundwater, farmers dig deeper and deeper wells just as energy corporations do in offshore waters such as the Gulf of Mexico when they search for new oil deposits. In the case of both water and oil, such drilling has costs to the environment. Against the threat of “peak oil” (whether the hypothesis is true or not), there are alternative energy sources. On the most fundamental level, there is no alternative to water.
Even if Syria had the same precipitation levels as Great Britain (as it happens, Syria has higher levels than most nations in the Middle East), it would still be facing the same dilemmas that modern agriculture faces everywhere. Monoculture production of cash crops like cotton and wheat (the two largest farming goods in Syria) is heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that can seep into rivers and lakes leading to all sorts of illnesses, including cancer. In volume one of Capital, Marx described the growth of capitalist agriculture as a curse:
All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility…Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.
An examination of the contradictions of Syrian agriculture bears this out in spades. While it is not the only cause of the revolt that began in March 2011, it is an important part of the class divide between the crony capitalists based in Damascus and the rural poor. This includes those who were forced to leave the land and crowd into the neglected neighborhoods of Homs, Aleppo and Damascus itself. One of those suburban areas that became an epicenter of the struggle is Wadi Barada that was newsworthy for putting the water question into sharp relief. As is so often the case with mainstream reporting on Syria, there is very little context to make sense of Assad’s charge that the rebels in Wadi Barada sabotaged Damascus’s water supplies. This accusation has been repeated in hundreds of pro-Assad websites that have ritually used every opportunity to slander the rebels. In writing this article, I hope to supply the context for the still unfolding Wadi Barada events as well as help understand the broader social and economic challenges that Syria faces under continued Baathist rule. This is a dictatorship that has yet come to terms with the water and farming cul-de-sac and surely never will.
In 2007 Transaction Publishers came out with journalist Francesca de Châtel’s Water, Sheikhs and Dam Builders: Stories of People and Water in the Middle East, an indispensable guide to the Syrian story as well as those of other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that in one way or another are pursuing unsustainable water and farming policies. While I strongly recommend purchasing the book, an alternative would be to read the articles on her website that were expanded upon in her book. Trained as an architect, the Dutch journalist lived in Damascus from 2006 until 2010, where she worked as the managing editor and editor-in-chief of Syria Today. While there, she began writing about water issues in Syria and the region.
Chapter one of her book is titled “The Death of the Garden of Eden”, an allusion to the four rivers mentioned in Genesis, including the Euphrates and Tigris. Since the story of Adam and Eve is likely based on Sumerian mythology, there is little doubt that the Fertile Crescent was a garden of Eden in antiquity. How it fell from grace has little to do with God but the problems of irrigation that have haunted the region for millennia. The epigraph for this chapter that precedes the current crisis has a prophetic quality:
There is no more rain, but there are more and more people. We forget that we are living in the desert here and that more than a quarter of the Syrian population now lives in Damascus. We have no water anymore and our Barada River cries. In the plain, in the Ghuta, it’s the same thing: there used to be five large springs there that fed the crops. They have all dried up.
–Nizar Hussein, agricultural engineer, Barada & Awaj River Authority, Damascus, Syria
The Barada River was indispensable to the rise of Damascus as the crown jewel of the Arab world. Its name is reflected in the tormented suburb Wadi Barada that means Barada Valley. In 1834 a British traveler described Damascus as “a city of hidden palaces, of copses, and gardens, and fountains, and bubbling streams.” The Barada river was “the juice of her life,” a “gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti-Lebanon” (the mountain range that borders Lebanon and Syria.)
Converging with the Barada River were springs to the north of Damascus, including Ain el Fije that was home to the pumping station allegedly blown up by rebels or tainted by diesel fuel—the story shifts from one Assadist website to another. The various water sources flowed into the city via seven canals that were built during or before Roman presence in the region. For many, the well-watered wonders of the city were paradisiacal.
Today they are much more infernal as de Châtel writes:
I crossed one of the seven canals of the Barada, the Manias. Today its riverbed, which winds between and beneath the medieval town and skirts the thick city walls, little more than an open sewer. A thin sliver of water trickles between garbage and rotting vegetables, and a foul stench rises up from the river.
Now only untreated sewage flows through the canals to irrigate the Ghuta referred to in the epigraph above—the area that housed the very same villages that Assad attacked with Sarin gas in 2013. At the time the Assadists blamed the rebels for an alleged “false flag” incident in the same fashion they are now accused for cutting off Damascus’s water supply.
Today the Barada is no longer used to irrigate the farmlands surrounding Damascus, only to supply the faucets of the city’s burgeoning population. When de Châtel was gathering the material for her book a decade ago, Barada and Ain el Fije had already ceased to meet the needs of Damascus. By the 1990s, the water deficit had risen to 40 percent. In the plains around Damascus, the shortage was felt most acutely by farmers who depended on irrigation, particularly in Ghuta.
The Syrian government hoped to alleviate water shortages in the countryside by persuading farmers to use drip irrigation rather than traditional methods. While it succeeded to some extent on pilot projects, it was constrained by a couple of factors. It required a capital investment that many poorer farmers could not afford and relied on wells that had already begun to run dry. This was felt most keenly by the farmers of Wadi Barada whose water sources had been diverted to Damascus. As these farmers found it more and more difficult to stay afloat economically, they moved into the overcrowded city and thus became another element in the vicious cycle that was impoverishing the countryside and city simultaneously.
For the newly arrived, Damascus bore little resemblance to the glossy image of the city drawn by Assad’s defenders. High-rises sprang up like mushrooms to accommodate families but without proper sanitation, water supplies and ventilation. During the 1980s, half of Damascus lived in squalor. As the city expanded outwards, Ghuta was swept into its maw and began to have the character of Paris’s banlieues. Trees were felled and farmland was turned into empty lots for the cheap housing geared to the poor. One can assume that the fierce resistance of Ghuta to this day stems from such neglect. Accompanying a water department official named Nizar, de Châtel reports on what she saw there:
We drove out of the village and found ourselves in the desert. A few houses were dotted around, slapped together with rough concrete blocks and splatters of cement. They lay in a wasteland: flat, gray soil, barren and infertile. A few pumps could be seen in the fields. But there was no water to pump. “This was the middle of the Ghuta Oasis,” said Nizar. “These were all apricot orchards. As far as the eye could reach. Look at it now!” I asked what the farmers here did now, as there was nothing to live off anymore. “They go to the city to find work. Anywhere. And in the winter they hope and pray for rain.” I was speechless, it seemed unbelievable: acres and acres of desolation, punctuated only by gnarled tree stumps.
When de Châtel asks Nizar why the government was doing nothing to address the situation in Ghuta, he replied: “1 will tell you a secret: the Arab governments have no idea about long-term planning. They have no vision, no plan. In Syria, we are all sleeping. And maybe, just maybe, the day when the water really runs out and we face a disaster, we will wake up.” One might surmise that Nizar was speaking for most Syrians when he described such a feckless government that not only lacked a vision for the water crisis but the country’s well-being in general.
In a kind of perfect storm, the water crisis reached catastrophic dimensions in 2010 when a drought cut deeply into the country’s already depleted supplies. In 2014, Peter Gleick, the director of the Pacific Institute, a think-tank devoted to water resources, wrote an article titled Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria that considered the possibility that the 2011 revolt was indirectly related to climate change.
Starting in 2006, Syria experienced drought conditions that lasted for the next five years and that was described by one expert as the “worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” In July 2008, the Minister of Agriculture candidly admitted to a UN gathering that the drought was “beyond our capabilities as a country to deal with”. Between 2006 and 2009, around 1.3 million Syrians living in the eastern farming belt were hammered by the drought and among them 800,000 lost their livelihoods and basic food support. By late 2011, the UN estimated that the drought grew to affect up to three million people—about one out of seven citizens.
As is generally the case, it is impossible at this point to prove that climate change created a specific catastrophe such as the Syrian drought or the superstorm Sandy that devastated the American northeast in 2012. However, Gleick is a highly credentialed scientist who is in a position to make an informed judgment on what was taking place in Syria. If there was no smoking gun to show that the drought was a product of climate change, there was certainly enough circumstantial evidence to say that Syria’s future was guarded at best. Like the journalist Francesca de Châtel, Gleick honed in on the springs of Ain el Fije:
In a more focused hydrologic assessment, downscaled climate change data from transient experiments with regional climate models were used to assess the potential effects of climate change on water availability in the area of the Figeh spring system near Damascus (Smiatek et al. 2013). This water system is one of the largest springs in the world and serves as the drinking water source for nearly three million people. The analysis focused on differences in annual, seasonal, and monthly temperature, precipitation, and water availability measured as spring discharge between present climate (taken as the 1961–90 average) and two future periods (2021–50 and 2070–99), and identified potentially serious reductions in water availability from increased evapotranspiration demand and decreased precipitation. The relative change in mean discharge for the climate ensemble showed a decrease during the peak flow from March to May of up to 220% in the period 2021–50 and almost 250% in the period 2069–98, compared to the past climatic mean. Decreases of this magnitude would have dramatic effects on local water availability. [emphasis added]
Considering the terrible shape of Damascus’s water today, a decrease of 220% in only four years is a forecast of certain doom. Even under the best of circumstances, such a prognosis requires drastic action and a transformation of the Syrian state that would not be guaranteed of success. We can conclude, however, that the Assad dynasty is the ruling class least capable of solving such problems. As the water department official Nizar put it, “Arab governments have no idea about long-term planning. They have no vision, no plan.”
It is also a crowning irony that the two most militarily powerful countries in the world—the USA and Russia—both have presidents that are solidly in the Baathist corner. If Obama never entertained the possibility of “regime change”, Assad can now rest assured that Trump and Putin have given him their blessings as a fellow combatant in the “war on terror”. In addition to their support for arguably the bloodiest dictator in the 21st century, Trump and Putin are also distinguished as being the most high-profile climate change denialists in the world. Trump has called global warming a “hoax” and Putin is on record as stating that “an increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.”
But what would be the impact on Syria if there was an increase of two or three degrees? It would be catastrophic and arguably one even greater than Assad has visited on the country in six years of war. Military conflict can always come to an end but reversing climate change is far more difficult, especially when the USA and Russia are ruled by men who are averse to reducing greenhouse gases.
Until the rise of capitalism (and capitalist agriculture in particular) in the Middle East and North Africa, traditional societies were adept at conserving water. The qanat, a Persian word, was an ancient system of wells and tunnels that delivered groundwater to villages and farms. It originated 3,000 years ago in a region bordering eastern Turkey and Iran. In ensuing centuries, the technique spread as far as China. The rise of Islamic empires is directly related to this engineering breakthrough. As Arab armies swept toward the West, they brought their knowledge of qanat with them. In Morocco, they became known as khettaras and as madjiras in Spain, the etymological origin of Madrid. When Spain colonized the New World, it brought the technology with it—one good thing amidst all the evils. The qanat can be found in Mexico, Chile and even in the early settlement of Los Angeles, a city that is famous for its appropriation of water in an arid terrain—not unlike Damascus.
For the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa, water was a precious resource that was husbanded mostly for the production of food. There was no concept of agricultural commodities produced for foreign markets. As such, it was much easier to strike a balance between the needs of a city like Cairo or Damascus and that of the countryside where the peasantry dwelled. Water was the source of life, not cash. Water was so precious that the Persian word for irrigation—abad—became part of many city’s names such as Ahmedabad, which means “irrigated by Ahmed”, a notable who funded the creation of a qanat.
The ancient qanats have fallen into disrepair for the most part. They have been replaced by wells and motor pumps that rely on diesel fuel that became ever increasingly more unaffordable for Syria’s peasantry. Unlike the qanat that rested upon a balance between a settled population and an existing resource, the wells that have spread across Syria like locusts leave nothing behind in their wake except cash and saline deposits.
In the final chapter of her book, Francesca de Châtel profiles some people working to solve Syria’s water crisis. Though neither of them are Syrian, they were deeply committed to the country’s future well-being.
A Dutch anthropologist named Joshka Wessels returned to the abandoned qanats to see if she could make them work once again to the advantage of farmers and townspeople. De Châtel accompanied her to Qara, a small village 100 kilometers north of Damascus to examine her projects.
Wessels is supervising a team of construction workers helping to restore a qanat that had fallen into disrepair. Unlike the wells, they do not rely on machinery. Gravity is used to transport water from higher levels, usually from the sides of mountains or hills, to settlements below. Even though the work has not been completed, the village is enjoying twice the supply of water it once had.
Her team has identified ninety abandoned qanats in Syria and she expressed hope that the breakthrough at Qara could be replicated elsewhere. Within four years of the publication of de Châtel’s book, those hopes would be abandoned in the chaos of Assad’s war on his countrymen.
There was another man in Syria who sought to promote a more appropriate technology. Father Paolo dall’Oglio was a Jesuit priest and founder of a religious community grouped around the Monastery of Mar Musa in the north of Damascus. When Father Pablo came to Mar Musa, it was in the grips of desertification owing to overgrazing, exhaustion of groundwater and the other ills that plagued the Syrian countryside.
He accepted that water was in short supply and sought ways to maximize the impact of what could be tapped from the surrounding area. His first approach was “modern”. He dug wells like everybody else but soon discovered that it produced far too little for his needs. To supplement the water from the wells, he built a small retaining dam at the top of the valley where the monastery was located. Working with local plants, the monks at Mar Musa began to restore the traditional plants and fruit in conformity with an eye to environmental sustainability. By 2001 Mar Musa had become a model for the rest of the country. He had come to the conclusion that water was key to Syria’s survival but only if it obeyed this guideline: “The solution to the water problem is to either make it expensive, or to make it scarce. When water flows freely from the tap, it is taken for granted.”
Besides being a champion of environmental justice, Father Paolo was a partisan of the Syrian revolution. Assad exiled him in 2012 for his advocacy. Ignoring threats to his life and safety, he returned to Syria a year later only to be kidnapped and likely killed by ISIS in Raqqa, the capital of its bogus Caliphate.
Turning now to more recent events, we must consider Wadi Barada as the final and most brutal convergence of water and warfare.
On December 24, 2016, a bomb destroyed the water station there that was fed by the Ain al-Fija spring referred to above. The Assad dictatorship has accused the rebels of setting off the bomb as the ultimate terrorist tactic while they blame Syrian aerial bombardment for the damage. The best appraisal of who is at fault can be found on the BellingCat website of Elliot Higgins that relies on still photos and videos meant to demonstrate that the water station was the “collateral damage” of Syrian aerial bombardment.
As is so often the case with regime propaganda, there have been conflicting accusations against the rebels who either poured diesel fuel into the water supplies to make it undrinkable or set off a bomb to cut it off at the source. More recently the diesel contamination has not been alluded to in government propaganda.
Obviously, the goal should be to repair the water station as soon as possible to get the water flowing again. With government control of Wadi Barada, it would seem reasonable that maintenance crews would be welcome by both sides in the conflict because everybody must understand that without water they are doomed.
That being said, the Wadi Barada Media Center Facebook page points to disturbing signs that the dictatorship does not consider this the higher priority. Although it is in Arabic, an activist named Amr Sahali has taken the trouble to summarize the latest findings there:
Maintenance teams were sent in by the regime, under an agreement with the rebels, to repair the spring four days ago. The Wadi Barada Media Centre has been reporting throughout this time that whenever the teams go in, the regime starts bombing again and they flee. One of the maintenance teams’ cars was damaged and another was burned by the regime’s bombing – these are the same maintenance teams sent in by the regime. Basically, the regime-sent maintenance teams are being protected by the rebels and attacked by the regime. This info isn’t enough for a complete rebuttal of course, but it’s useful to have. There are English language reports about this on their page (you’ll have to scroll down) and videos showing the teams at work and the burning car: https://www.facebook.com/Wadi.Barada
When the Syrian revolution began, Assad’s supporters warned: “Assad or we burn country”. With the slow exhaustion of water that helped to fuel the uprising and now the much more aggressive and total assault on the water supply for 1.6 million Damascenes, it appears that their dark prophecy is finally taking place.