Return Flow

Dr Kifah Hsayan


Dr Kifah Mohamad Hsayan is a civil engineer who studied water engineering. She likes water and has gone where she needs to go to fulfil her purpose. Having lived through war and conflict in Syria, it is good to hear that she and her family are settled in Pamukkale, in the Denizli Province of southwestern Turkey, a town famed for its healing thermal spring waters. Still, she has experienced a certain restlessness and loss of purpose there, purpose that is slowly being restored by the gradual return to her career. 

Growing up in Damascus, Hsayan giggles quietly; she almost went into medicine. There was an opportunity to learn dentistry in Homs, but her father forbade any of his children to study outside of Damascus. “So, I went to study civil engineering. I liked it! Nobody knows the way you will go in the future. So, you find yourself in unexpected places. I liked it when I entered civil engineering, so I continued and got my BA, Master’s, and PhD.” 

She can tell you about any of the great watersheds of the Middle East and North African region – the Nile River, the Jordan Basin, and its flow into the Dead Sea, or the Tigris-Euphrates of her native Syria and the Turkish region, which journeys through Iraq into the Arabian Gulf. She can tell you where water is political, when it is mismanaged due to lack of awareness on the part of those who exploit it, or when it is used as an infinite resource where it is finite. Some countries, most critically Libya where the ‘Great Man-Made River’ is being fed by the world’s largest fossil Nubian sandstone aquifer system,

are using non-renewable waters and depleting irreplaceable groundwater reserves. She has studied traditional surface groundwater resources such as wells and oases, traditional irrigation, reservoirs and aquifers, and moved beyond traditional engineering to study virtual water. In fact, Hsayan was the first person in the Arab world to conduct studies and write her PhD thesis on virtual water, a revolutionary calculation method pioneered by Professor John Anthony Allan, which has changed the nature of trade policy and research, especially in water-scarce areas. “My research looked at how some Arab countries could manage their water more effectively. For example, growing crops that require lots of water in areas rich in water, which can be exported to areas with limited water resources. This will allow these areas to focus their limited water resources on less-water-oriented outputs, for instance within the industrial sector.”

The relatively new field of calculating the amount of embedded water used at every step along the production chain is intangible and difficult to understand but will help to maximise the efficient use of renewable and transportable water resources. Her PhD supervisor at Cairo University, where she studied, suggested this area of study to her saying that understanding of the concept would grow over time. Hsayan completed her PhD in 2008, the same year Professor Allan won the Stockholm Water Prize for his work on virtual water. 

Behind her desk in her makeshift balcony office is a window. It is raining outside. She explains what has happened in the seven years since she left Syria, first for Lebanon and then Turkey. Having to start your life again can be all-consuming. Adapting to the pressures of a new environment can uproot and isolate you from your past. Pamukkale has been safe for the family. Her husband taught at the local university but now teaches at Denizli Dini Yüksek İhtisas Merkezi. Her three children, aged 15, 13 and 10, have scant memories of Syria, if any. Hsayan has struggled not to think about loved ones left behind or her life-encompassing academic work, which was put on hold. “It is a break,” she says, “but I don’t feel it as a rest. I feel that I am under a lot of stress, missing my work a lot. I am very grateful to Cara because it returned me to the academic environment again. I know many Syrian academics from Cara, and this opened opportunities for them to return again to an academic environment.” 

The last time Hsayan was in an academic environment was in 2016, when she taught at the University of Damascus. “Both my husband and I were working there. I was teaching in the Engineering department, and he was teaching in the History department, but after the outbreak of the war, the dynamics of the department changed a lot. Students started to harass their lecturers and threatened them. I was not personally subjected to it, but I saw my colleagues going through it, especially those students whose fathers were enrolled in official or military positions.” They also had to pass through checkpoints around the city and were harassed. Her husband’s two brothers were arrested, and her brother-in-law died while detained. “Because of my husband’s political views and because he was an activist, we thought it was better to leave Syria. So we went to Lebanon, and planned to move to a third county, until he secured a post in the Faculty of Theology at Pammukale University.”

Aside from revisiting her work on virtual water, in the past year, she has been teaching the Turkish curricula part-time to Syrian engineers who need to take their Turkish equivalence tests. But her most exciting news is her current collaboration with Bristol University on a study on the state of water in northwest Syria: “It has been beneficial for me because I’ve returned to my own work!” She smiles, modestly and unexpectedly slipping news into the conversation about her return to speaking English. “Cara assisted me when I joined the Syrian academic programme. First, I returned to speaking English. It had been a long time since I had used it. As an academic, you need to know English. Second, Cara arranged research sessions: how to embark upon research, to understand the criteria for scientific journals to publish your research, and most importantly, my research visit to the UK, to the University of Bristol. It was a huge chance and a big opportunity to reconnect with a real academic environment. I can’t forget that I am an academic. I am very focused on my project with Bristol University.” 

With Bristol, she will study how water is accessed by the 1.8 million internally displaced persons who live in the camps in northwest Syria, camps established in an emergency without long-term planning, in addition to years of drought and Syria’s low annual precipitation, and poor water distribution. The patchwork of different parties controlling the region has resulted in a situation where people’s rights and needs have been profoundly neglected. “I hope this project will be useful for making decisions and knowing what is happening in the camps. The camps in the northwest don’t comply with UNHCR’s water supply criteria. Now these are ten years in existence, and according to the UN, this is a long-term situation. It has almost been a decade since people have lived in the temporary settlements of northwest Syria. There were various reasons for moving there. Some of them were persecuted by security services. Others were not willing to fight and did not want to be conscripted. Some people were shelled and had nowhere to go. In El Ghouta, Homs and many other areas, people underwent forced displacement and were sent to the northwest. People are now building permanent settlements, so soon, these camps will turn into towns and cities.” 

The study will evaluate water resources used for internally displaced persons’ camps in the northwest of Syria, as well as studying the effects of climate change on them. Current practices are unethical and unsustainable. Water affects everything, from food insecurity to public health. As a water engineer and humanitarian, Hsayan fervently hopes that the study will provide a different approach to managing the region’s water resources, so that her fellow Syrians will, at least, have this fundamental right restored to them.