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Water as a weapon of war


In an area of northern Syria, already struck by desertification which has been dramatically intensified by the global climate crisis, water is being used as a weapon of war.

For the past eight years the region commonly known by its Kurdish name of Rojava has been experimenting with building up an ecological and feminist system of self-governance. In this system, ordinary people make decisions about how their towns and neighbourhoods are run and women’s freedom is considered fundamental.

Turkey invaded Rojava in October 2019 after Trump announced US military withdrawal from the region. Turkish forces bombed the main water station on the first day of the invasion of Serekaniye (a city whose name, in Kurdish, means ‘fountainhead’, or ‘water source’) and surrounding towns and villages. Since then, the water has been shut-off on five further occasions, denying more than 650,000 people of access to water, just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Since the subsequent invasion and occupation of Serekaniye and Tel Abyad in late 2019, water is now being weaponized and water infrastructure targeted as never before

In addition to this, Turkey has dammed the rivers which flow from Turkey into Syria and Iraq, detaining water inside its own borders, causing a big reduction in the flow of water to the wider region – by an estimated 80 per cent to Iraq and by around 40 per cent to Syria.

In response to the ongoing crisis, UK-based co-operative the Solidarity Economy Association (SEA) has come together with a number of other international organizations and women’s structures in Rojava to launch a big crowdfunding campaign for water infrastructure and women’s co-operatives in the region. It aims to raise £100,000 ($123,463).

The #Water4Rojava crowdfunding campaign launched on 16 May and reached £25,000 ($30,865) in the first week. The campaign is also being match funded up to the first £50,000 and is being supported by well-known figures, including British actress Maxine Peak, David Graeber, Debbie Bookchin, Janet Biehl and world-renowned photographer Joey Lawrence.

‘Most of the water sources in the region were in Serekaniye and we lost them with the invasion,’ explains Heval Armanc from Aborîya Jin (Women’s Economy) – an autonomous women’s economic body in northeast Syria.

‘We have been struggling a lot more since we lost access to the water resources. We have some women’s economy projects, like our project in Derîk (another city in Rojava), where we are digging wells, planting trees and building houses. With all that we do, we are mindful about nature and not to cause any harm.’

Aborîya Jin’s main role is to help women set up and run projects like agriculture and textile co-operatives, and communal living projects with collective livelihoods. ‘If we are working alone, those projects will move very slowly, but with support the project can be very successful, that’s why the Water for Rojava campaign is very important. Access to water is even more vital now with the global pandemic – you need water to be clean and safe,’ says Armanc.

Turkey controls 90 per cent of the waterflow of the Euphrates, and around 44 per cent of the Tigris, the two main rivers of the region. Since 1992, the government has built 22 major dams which hold back the headwaters of these two great rivers.

Within Turkey’s borders, hundreds of towns and villages have been submerged and (mostly Kurdish) residents forced into cities and away from traditional ways of life. Downstream in Iraq, regions such as the ecologically and culturally unique Mesopotamian Marshes and the Marsh Arabs who depend on them for subsistence are also at threat of extinction.

In Syria, Turkey has been directly at war with the predominantly Kurdish population of the northern regions since its invasion and continued occupation of Afrin in early 2018. This is now escalating since the subsequent invasion and occupation of Serekaniye and Tel Abyad in late 2019, and water is now being weaponized and water infrastructure targeted as never before.

The local Directorate of Water, the citizen-led municipalities, the Women’s Economy, local charities and NGOs, all have plans for alternative measures to provide water, but pressures such as an economic embargo on the region and food insecurity caused by the depleted water supply, climate change and the ongoing conflict, mean that there are not enough funds to go ahead with all the projects. That’s where #Water4Rojava can help.

Support the Water for Rojava campaign 

To find out more about the wider Kurdish struggle, check out the upcoming July/August edition of New Internationalist magazine (on sale from the end of June).


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