(AFP) — Syria's longest river used to flow by his olive grove, but today Khaled al-Khamees says it has receded into the distance, parching his trees and leaving his family with hardly a drop to drink.
"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 neighbour and archfoe Turkey of weaponising 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 neighbours were busy planting corn and beans in 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 kilometres (four miles) just to get a bucket of water for their children to drink," he said.
– ‘Alarming’ –
Reputed to have once flown through the biblical Garden of Eden, the Euphrates runs for almost 2,800 kilometres (1,700 miles) 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 metres, and now hovers just dozens of centimetres 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.
– ‘Water weapon’? –
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 metres 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 the Islamic State group.
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 trans-boundary rivers for political or other purposes".