On 26 May 2021, Mr Mark Lowcock, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs briefed the UN Security Council on Syria. He made four important points: water shortages; the economic crisis; protection for civilians; and access for humanitarian aid.
Water is the most fundamental issue for drinking and irrigation, but also for electricity and food supply. The flow in the Euphrates reached a critical level in May, with half the amount needed to keep the Tishreen dam (north-east of Aleppo) functioning. The Tabqa dam is also severely affected. Electricity for civilians and hospitals has been cut. Pumping stations urgently need the electric power. Five and a half million people in Syria are at risk, and many more in Iraq. Crop forecasts are already poor because of drought.
The head-waters of both main rivers lie in Turkey, which agreed in 1987 to provide 500 cubic metres per second to Syria. Of this 60% was intended to flow on to Iraq. Turkey has this year halved the agreed flow. Turkey has also interfered with the running of the Alouk pumping station (in Syria) which supplies the city of Hasssaka and three refugee camps with some 70,000 residents. The impact of the cuts was confirmed by the Governments of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in Erbil.
In Syria the economy has got worse, with the currency falling against the dollar. Shortages of food and fuel have provoked riots and some deaths. There are 14,000 vulnerable children under 5 in the largest of the refugee camps. Several European countries have repatriated their own nationals, but Britain refuses to do so, alleging security risks.
This happens at a time when UN Protection and Relief Services are under threat. The mandate for cross-border assistance will expire in 5 weeks. Already the number of approved crossing points has been reduced from 3 to 1. The camp at Rukban, near the Syria/Jordan and Iraq frontier has had no UN supplies since September 2019. It is no wonder that the health situation is dire, with high risks of Covid everywhere and few available supplies of vaccines.
There can be no doubt that the two great rivers of Mesopotamia are international waterways. The principles adopted by the International Court of Justice in 1974 should apply (Lahay Case). They “prohibit” any actions causing environmental damage to riparian states.
The vital interests of the down-stream states, i.e. Syria and Iraq, are directly involved. The United Nations should be willing to act to prevent conflict over resources. This is particularly so at a time of pandemic, when under-fed and starving people will be exposed to the worst risks. The five Permanent Members of the Security Council are responsible for upholding international law and preventing violent conflicts. This country and all states with diplomatic relations with Turkey , should work to persuade Turkey to act in the interests of humanity.
The Mandates of the UN Agencies for work in Syria should be immediately extended. The number of agreed frontier crossing-points should be increased, and the supply of Covax vacines improved. The UN Agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent should be strengthened to protect civilians, and hospitals; also to verify the implementation of agreed measures.
Confidence concerning the resolution of such major issues as water supply would be greatly increased if Turkey could also be persuaded to desist from unilateral military and other interventions in nearby states, for example northern Iraq, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, northern Syria, Cyprus, Greece and Libya. The days of the Ottoman Caliphate are over, just as the sun has set on the empires of Spain, Britain and the Soviet Union. Turkey should incur penalties if it fails to behave in an honourable way towards its neighbours.