A displaced Syrian girl fills water from a cistern at a camp for Syrian displaced people near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Northern countryside of Idlib.  © 2018 AP Images / Anas Alkharboutli

(Beirut) – Turkish authorities’ failure to ensure adequate water supplies to Kurdish-held areas in Northeast Syria is compromising humanitarian agencies’ ability to prepare and protect vulnerable communities in the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. Turkish authorities should immediately do everything they can to resume supplying water through the Allouk water pumping station.

Turkey and Turkish-backed forces took control of the Allouk water station during the Turkish offensive on Northeast Syria in October 2019. The Allouk water station, located near the town of Ras al-Ain (Serekaniye), serves 460,000 people in al-Hasakeh governorate, including al-Hasakeh city and three displacement camps. Aid organizations have told Human Rights Watch that the Turkish authorities have interrupted water pumping several times since the start of the year, with the latest interruption on March 29.

“In the midst of a global pandemic that is overloading sophisticated governance and infrastructure systems, Turkish authorities have been cutting off the water supply to regions most under strain in Syria,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish authorities should do everything they can to immediately resume supply to these communities.”

Local authorities and humanitarian groups in Northeast Syria say they are facing immense obstacles in putting a COVID-19 preparedness plan in place. They are unable to bring additional supplies into the region because the border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is closed. The UN Security Council de-authorization of al-Yarubiyeh crossing for cross-border supply in January, due to the threat of a veto of the entire resolution by Russia, has also affected supplies. Al-Yarubiyeh was primarily used by the World Health Organization to provide supplies to Northeast Syria.

Aid agencies say that because of limited options, they have made it a priority to raise awareness around hand washing practices. However, the repeated interruptions to the water supply has meant that they are unable to even encourage this measure.

Turkey says that authorities in control of al-Mabroukeh and Tishreen Dam have failed to provide electricity to the water pumping station, and the Turkish-controlled city of Ras al-Ayn, but humanitarian workers say al-Mabroukeh does not serve the pumping station and that there continues to be enough electricity to operate the water station. Human Rights Watch has previously documented discriminatory diversion of aid and essential services by the Syrian government. All parties should ensure that they do not block essential services to populations in need, Human Rights Watch said.

Allouk water station provides water supplies for populations that are already deemed vulnerable, including in al-Hol and Areesheh camps, which host tens of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and foreigners who lived in areas formerly held by ISIS. Human Rights Watch has documented dire conditions in these camps, including overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tattered tents, and residents drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. These conditions are likely to be exacerbated with the water supplies cut off, and will only put the population at greater risk of contracting coronavirus.

Alternatives to water pumping from the Allouk water station are insufficient, say aid agencies working in the region. They are currently trucking in water, a time-consuming and unsustainable process. According to a report by the Northeast Syria water and sanitation group, water trucking provides less than 50 percent of the needs of the population and is too costly. One aid worker said that the quality of the water being brought in through trucking is much lower than pumped water and especially affects the availability of drinking water.

Local officials and reports say that the interruptions of pumping at Allouk are a pressure tactic to force Kurdish-led authorities to supply electricity to areas under the control of the Turkish-backed factions from al-Mabroukeh electricity station, which remains under the control of the Syrian government and Kurdish-led authorities as part of the Russian-Turkish deal that was concluded in December 2019.

Under international human rights law and the laws of war, all parties to an armed conflict must protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including those necessary for water distribution and sanitation. Parties to the conflict need to ensure civilians’ access to adequate water and sanitation. International human rights law also obligates governments and de facto authorities to respect the right to water and ensure that people can enjoy clean, available, acceptable, accessible, and affordable water and sanitation. The Syrian government, Kurdish-led authorities, UN aid agencies, and Turkey need to work together to ensure that water and electricity are supplied to the civilian population without discrimination or unlawful restrictions.

“Not only is the Turkish authorities’ water shut-off to communities in Northeast Syria harmful to civilians, but it could also blowback on Turkey itself,” Page said. “Rights-respecting public health measures are needed to address the coronavirus; borders alone won’t stop a pandemic’s spread.”