Iconic Hama waterwheels stop turning as Orontes River runs dry

AMMAN: The centuries-old waterwheels in regime-held Hama city are at a standstill because the Orontes River is running far below its usual level, possibly due to the alleged closure of a dam upstream, sources in the province tell Syria Direct.

“The Orontes River is nearly dry,” Baraa, a Hama city resident and correspondent for local, pro-opposition news page Bilhamawe that first reported the story told Syria Direct last week. “The norias have been still for about a month.”

The norias along the Orontes in central Hama city are traditional water-raising mechanisms. The wooden waterwheels are lined with buckets that, when turned by the flow of the river, lift and deposit water in aqueducts and channels for irrigation or other uses.

The oldest of the 19 surviving wheels in Hama city date back to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, while the existence of the waterwheels is thought to date back to hundreds of years before.

No longer used for agriculture, today the norias, with their unique creaking and groaning sounds, are primarily a symbol of Hama city, a tourist attraction and reminder of its heritage. Walkways, restaurants and squares line the banks of the Orontes near the wheels.

 The Orontes river in Hama city on Sunday, May 29. Photo courtesy of Bilhamawe.

But one month ago, the water in the Orontes River, known as al-Assi in Arabic, dipped below the level needed to power the norias, and they stopped turning.

While the wheels are occasionally stopped intentionally for maintenance, or when a particularly harsh summer lowers the river, “this time has been longer,” said Hama resident Baraa.

Baraa asked to be identified only by his first name because he and other Bilhamawe correspondents work secretly inside the regime-held city.

Pictures taken by Bilhamawe correspondents on May 15 and provided to Syria Direct appear to show a dramatic reduction in the level of the river at the site of the largest waterwheel near Hama’s central Orontes Square. Images from Sunday show water at the same level, while weeds and grasses have begun to grow in previously submerged parts of the riverbank.

Why is the water so low? Sources on the ground in Hama province who spoke to Syria Direct this week speculate that the drop in the Orontes River is connected to the use of water as a weapon in recent battles between rebels and regime forces.

 The Orontes river at its usual level, from  a YouTube video uploaded in 2014. Photo courtesy of rndomn8.

Earlier this month, Syria Direct reported the sudden and dramatic draining of a lake in a regime-blockaded pocket of territory in northern Homs province, 20km south of Hama city. The lake, formed by the Rastan Dam, provided a source of fish and irrigation for residents of the north Homs town of Rastan.

The draining of the lake came after pro-opposition news outlet Tomoddon reported in March that “regime forces” opened the Rastan Dam’s turbines to raise the water level downstream and “limit the movements of rebel fighters in Hama province.”

The Orontes River flows northwards from Rastan into Hama province, where the Syrian regime was battling back rebels who launched an offensive there earlier this year. While this claim was repeated to Syria Direct by multiple sources this month, Syrian state media has not reported the opening of the turbines.

Hama resident Baraa described a noticeable rise in the Orontes River coinciding with recent battles.

“At the beginning of the Hama battles,” with rebels several kilometers north of the provincial capital, “the Orontes River flooded significantly,” he said. Then the water level dropped, and had not returned to its usual level.

The local theory, as told to Syria Direct this month, is that after the water from the Rastan dam and lake flowed downstream, which hindered rebel movements and supply lines, a second dam dozens of kilometers further upstream in Homs has remained closed.

 The Orontes River running through Hama city last week. Photo courtesy of Bilhamawe.

The second dam in question is on the Qateenah Lake, 12km from Homs city, from which the Orontes River flows.  The closure of the regime-held dam could feasibly cause a drop in the Orontes River's water level further downstream.

The Orontes River originates in northeastern Lebanon's Hermel region. From there, it passes through Syria's Qusayr, just across the border in Homs province, before continuing on to the Qateenah lake, then Homs city and its northern countryside, before passing through Hama city on its winding route to empty into the Mediterranean.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm what caused the drop in the river's level. What is clear, however, is that something has dramatically altered the flow of the Orontes in northern Homs and Hama.

After the Rastan lake dried up, the structure of an electrical factory built during the French Mandate period in Syria, that was covered when the lake was first formed, appeared again, “for the first time in 100 years,” Yaarub a-Dali, an activist in the area told Syria Direct.

“The regime controls the body of the Rastan dam, and it is fortified with soldiers and tanks,” a-Dali said. “Only the lake is in the opposition area.”

 An early-twentieth century electrical plant was exposed after the Rastan lake dried up in recent weeks. Photo courtesy of Abu Ahmad.

In Rastan, the loss of the area’s lake is devastating farmers and fishermen. In Hama, the lowering water levels and the subsequent halting of the norias threaten to damage the structures, Ahmad Sabah, the former director of the Hama Artifacts Office who currently lives in opposition-held territories in the province told Syria Direct.

"With the water drying up and the wood of the norias being exposed to the burning summer sun for long periods, they could be damaged,” Sabah said.

With the river low, not only have the wheels stopped, but the water that remains is sluggish, and wastewater and trash usually carried away by the current is lingering, giving off a “loathsome smell,” local correspondent Baraa said.

Pictures provided to Syria Direct show extremely low water levels and trash floating in still, scummy water.

The waterwheels, symbols of the city and once a site for picnics and restaurants, family outings and groups of tourists, are still, their wooden voices silent. Below, the river smells of rot and waste.

“The history of Hama is filled with massacres,” Sabah told Syria Direct. “There may be beautiful memories on the banks of the Orontes, but its drying up, the norias no longer turning; none of it matters much to those who have lost much more precious things.”

Additional reporting by Hasaan Idrees.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Yazan Torko

Yazan studied interior design at Damascus university. In 2012, Yazan moved to Jordan where he volunteered with Syrian refugees. He is passionate about theater and previously developed YouTube videos for NGOs and small news outlets.

Mohammad Ali

Originally from Latakia, Mohammad moved to Jordan in 2012. He completed a BA in Business Management in 2012. He previously volunteered with non-profit organizations in Jordan.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.