The mysterious draining of the Rastan lake and how it's killing the local fishing industry

AMMAN: The local food industry of an encircled, rebel-controlled enclave in northern Homs province is in peril after regime forces reportedly drained a nearby lake that once supplied vital irrigation water and thousands of fish, sources on the ground told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

The Rastan Dam forms a man-made lake along western Syria’s Orontes River that once provided a source of fish and income for residents of Rastan, a town in northern Homs province encircled by the Syrian government since 2014.

The month of May usually marks fishing season in the lake, as thousands of baby fish hatch from their eggs.

But now, “all of the fish eggs have died,” and the lake is nearly empty, Abu Ayoub, a Rastan fisherman and farmer, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. He and other local fishermen blame the Syrian government for reportedly opening the dam’s turbines in recent months, causing the water to drain downstream, to the north.

“This is the first time the water levels have been so low in the Rastan Dam since it was built,” Abu Ayoub said.

Abu Ayoub at Rastan Dam in April. Photo courtesy of SMART News Agency

The loss of fish—and irrigation water for the area’s farmers—is devastating for Rastan and other nearby towns in the encircled north Homs pocket, where outside food is difficult and expensive to bring in past regime checkpoints.

It is unclear when exactly the water level began sinking. Last month, pro-opposition news outlet Tomoddon reported that "regime forces" opened the dam’s turbines in order 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 is advancing against rebels who launched an offensive there this past March.

Syrian state media did not report the opening of the turbines.

Video footage from late April shows a thin trickle of water where Rastan’s lake once stood. An Ottoman-era water pumping station sits abandoned in the middle of the lake’s dried-up sand bank.

In late springtime, “the water level of the lake is usually high,” said Abu Mohammad, another local fisherman who relied on Rastan Dam for income. “Now, I can’t go fishing or sell my catch. I used to depend on the [fishing] trade to feed my children.”

A fish restaurant in Rastan, April 28. Photo courtesy of Muhannad al-Qassim.

Abu Mohammad isn’t alone—dozens of other fishermen now have no source of income, and no fish to feed the town.

Among them is Abu Jassem, a Rastan resident in his mid-forties who has worked as a fisherman since defecting from the Syrian army in 2014. While fleeing the army, he suffered a gunshot wound to his foot, leaving him handicapped and unable to perform any manual labor beyond fishing.

Working in Rastan’s fishing industry “was my only choice to make ends meet for my family,” the fisherman told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Last month, his wife gave birth to a baby son, and now Abu Jassem has almost no money to support the newborn. “Both the fish and my income are in danger—my family is suffering.”

To buy fish, residents of Rastan are now left to rely on smugglers, who bring “limited amounts” past regime checkpoints and into the besieged pocket, fisherman Abu Ayoub said.

Reliance on smugglers has led fish prices to increase six-fold since the lake lost its water, he says.

“The price of one kilo of fish in Rastan used to be around SP600 ($3),” Abu Ayoub said. “This year, it costs SP4,000 ($18). Residents just aren’t able to buy it.”

In a sign of the severe blow to Rastan’s fishing industry, local fishing net manufacturers are now out of business, said Omar Abu Rayyan, a correspondent for pro-opposition outlet Homs Post. “Nobody is buying the nets,” he told Syria Direct, “now that there are no fish in the dam.”

For Rastan farmers who raise potatoes and cucumbers along the banks of the Orontes, losing the lake water also means losing the main source of irrigation for their produce.

As a result, an estimated 20 percent of farm crops are now dead, a Rastan local council member told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. “Wide areas” of farmland are now out of business along the stretch of the Orontes that flows through Rastan, the council member said.

Worried about losing their own produce, other farmers close to the lake are now harvesting their crops before they are fully ripe “to minimize the damage,” said a Rastan resident named Mohammad.

Until recently, farmland along the shores of the lake at Rastan Dam fed the area with the majority of its fresh produce—a mainstay of sustenance in “the face of encirclement” since 2014, the local council member added.

Even before the lake ran nearly dry this year, Rastan’s 100,000 residents were already hit hard by food, water and fuel shortages.

USAID contractor Chemonics International suspended water subsidies to the town’s local council last year, Syria Direct reported at the time. A shortage of baby formula last November left hundreds of newborns malnourished. In January, local officials ran out of diesel for water pumps.

For Abu Ayoub, the fisherman who is now out of business, he is worried that produce and fish lost this spring may not come back. “I’m scared we could lose all of our fish yields next year, too, if the water level stays where it is.”

 

Majdoleen a-Zouabi

Majdoline is from Daraa province. She studied journalism in Syria before moving to Jordan in 2013.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.