“It’s as if we were in the desert,” said the 50-year-old farmer, standing on what last year was the Euphrates riverbed.
“We’re thinking of leaving because there’s no water left to drink or irrigate the trees.”
Aid groups and engineers are warning of a looming humanitarian disaster in northeast Syria, where waning river flow is compounding woes after a decade of war.
They say plummeting water levels at hydroelectric dams since January are threatening water and power cutoffs for up to five million Syrians, in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis.
As drought grips the Mediterranean region, many in the Kurdish-held area are accusing neighbor and archfoe Turkey of weaponizing water by tightening the tap upstream, though a Turkish source denied this.
Outside the village of Rumayleh where Khamees lives, black irrigation hoses lay in dusty coils after the river receded so far it became too expensive to operate the water pumps.
Instead, much closer to the water’s edge, Khamees and neighbors were busy planting corn and beans in the soil just last year submerged under the current.
The father of 12 said he had not seen the river so far away from the village in decades.
“The women have to walk seven kilometers just to get a bucket of water for their children to drink,” he said.
Reputed to have once flown through the biblical Garden of Eden, the Euphrates runs for almost 2,800 kilometers across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
In times of rain, it gushes into northern Syria through the Turkish border and flows diagonally across the war-torn country towards Iraq.
Along its way, it irrigates swathes of land in Syria’s breadbasket and runs through three hydroelectric dams that provide power and drinking water to millions.
But over the past eight months, the river has contracted to a sliver, sucking precious water out of reservoirs and increasing the risk of dam turbines grinding to a halt.
At the Tishrin Dam, the first into which the river falls inside Syria, director Hammoud al-Hadiyyeen described an “alarming” drop in water levels not seen since the dam’s completion in 1999.
“It’s a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.
Since January, the water level has plummeted by five meters, and now hovers just dozens of centimeters above “dead level” when turbines are supposed to completely stop producing electricity.
Across northeast Syria, already power generation has fallen by 70 percent since last year, the head of the energy authority Welat Darwish says.
Two out of three of all potable water stations along the river are pumping less water or have stopped working, humanitarian groups say.
Almost 90 percent of the Euphrates flow comes from Turkey, the United Nations says.
To ensure Syria’s fair share, Turkey in 1987 agreed to allow an annual average of 500 cubic meters per second of water across its border.
But that has dropped to as low as 200 in recent months, engineers claim.
Inside Syria, the Euphrates flows mostly along territory controlled by semi-autonomous Kurdish authorities, whose US-backed fighters have over the years wrested its dams and towns from ISIS.
Turkey however regards those Kurdish fighters as linked to its outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and has grabbed land from them during Syria’s war.
Syria’s Kurds have accused Ankara of holding back more water than necessary in its dams, and Damascus in June urged Turkey to increase the flow immediately.
But a Turkish diplomatic source told AFP Turkey had “never reduced the amount of water it releases from its transboundary rivers for political or other purposes”.
“Our region is facing one of the worst drought periods due to climate change,” and rainfall in southern Turkey was “the lowest in the last 30 years”, this source said.
Analyst Nicholas Heras said Turkey did hold leverage over Syria and Iraq with the huge Ataturk Dam just 80 kilometers from the Syrian border, but it was debatable whether Ankara wanted to use it.
That would mean “international complications for Ankara, both with the United States and Russia”, a key Damascus ally across the table in Syria peace talks.
“The easier, and more frequently utilized, water weapon that Ankara uses is the Alouk plant” that it seized from the Kurds in 2019, Heras said.
Freshwater supply from the station on another river has been disrupted at least 24 times since 2019, affecting 460,000 people, the United Nations says.
But Syria analyst Fabrice Balanche said the drought did serve Ankara’s long-term goal of “asphyxiating northeast Syria economically”.
“In periods of drought, Turkey helps itself and leaves the rest for the Kurds, in defiance and full knowledge of the consequences,” he said.
Wim Zwijnenburg, of the PAX peace organization, said Turkey was struggling to provide enough water for “megalomanic” agricultural projects set up in the 1990s, a challenge now complicated by climate change.
“The big picture is drought is coming,” he said.
“We already see a rapid decline in healthy vegetation growth on satellite analysis” in both Syria and Turkey.