A New Casualty of Syria’s War: Drinking Water in Damascus
by Ben Hubbard, originally posted on January 4, 2017
BEIRUT, Lebanon — For millions of Damascus residents, long-term concerns about the direction of the war in Syria have been replaced by worries about where to get enough water to do the dishes, wash clothes or take a shower.
For nearly two weeks, the Syrian capital and its vicinity have been afflicted by a water crisis that has left taps dry, caused long lines at wells and forced people to stretch whatever thin resources they can find.
“When the world gets hard for us, we work something out,” said a woman in a video posted on Facebook showing how she used a jury-rigged cola bottle to wash teacups. “When you cut off the water, we dig for water. When you cut off the tap, we make a tap.”
Like most of Syria’s problems, the Damascus water crisis is a symptom of the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced about half the country’s prewar population of 22 million and left its territory divided into zones controlled by the government, armed rebels and jihadist groups.
While a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey and announced last week has reduced overall violence across the country, it has not stopped the fighting everywhere, nor has it resolved what happens when resources needed by one side are controlled by its enemies, as appears to be the case with Damascus’s water.
Historically, most of the water for the capital, which is controlled by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, has come from the Barada Valley north of the city, which is controlled by rebels who want to oust Mr. Assad.
The crisis began on Dec. 22, when the water stopped flowing. Each side has accused the other of damaging infrastructure near the spring, halting the flow.
Antigovernment activists have posted photos online, purporting to show structures around the spring that they say were damaged by exploding barrels dropped from government helicopters.
The government first accused the rebels of polluting the water, then of damaging the infrastructure.
Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the United Nations humanitarian office in Geneva, said by email Tuesday that the “deliberate targeting of the water infrastructure” had caused the shut-off.
“But we are not in a position to say by whom,” he said. “The area has been the scene of much fighting, so we have not been able to access it.”
Now, 5.5 million people in Damascus and the vicinity lack water, which has raised the risk of waterborne disease, especially among children, he said.
Fighting near the Barada Valley has continued despite the cease-fire.
Antigovernment activists say that government forces, and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization, have continued to attack the area in an apparent attempt to take it over. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts in Syria, said the government launched 15 airstrikes on the area Monday amid clashes between rebels and pro-government forces.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, accused the Syrian government and its allies on Wednesday of violating the cease-fire, saying that the new violence could derail peace talks meant to be held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on Jan. 23. Rebel groups have threatened to boycott the talks if government attacks do not stop.
Few Damascus residents expect much from the talks or have time to think about them. While generally safe from the violence that had reduced other parts of the country to rubble, they were struggling through a cold winter of high prices and scarce commodities before the water crisis, making things worse.
The Syrian government has sought to ease the crisis by trucking water from wells around the city, and the United Nations has rehabilitated 120 wells to cover about one-third of the city’s daily needs, Mr. Laerke, the spokesman, said.
But many residents said they had received nothing. Some were buying water from men with private tankers, while others took advantage of whatever they could get.
A 50-year-old shopkeeper said he had not had a shower in 10 days but that he and his sons went to the mosque every day to wash their hands, feet and faces, an option not available to the women of the house.
At home, he said, they used plastic utensils because they could not wash dishes.
One 60-year-old woman said she had not had running water in her home for 10 days. Her two sons have spent hours each day lining up to fill jugs from the well at their mosque. They use that to drink and to wash dishes, collecting the runoff to flush the toilet.
“My family’s dream is to get a warm shower,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions for communicating with a foreign news outlet without government permission. “It has become our ultimate hope in Damascus to have enough water to take showers and wash clothes in the automatic washing machine.”
She expressed anger that Syria’s state-run news media had said little about the water crisis, instead focusing on the military’s battles with rebels.
“We are fed up with the news of military operations,” she said. “We want news about water and water supply schedules.”
Despite the water crisis, conditions in Damascus are far better than those in Aleppo, the northern city and former commercial epicenter of the country, where Syrian and Russian forces prevailed last month after prolonged bombardments of its eastern side. While the cease-fire appears to be holding there, the formerly rebel-held eastern quarters are abandoned wastelands, United Nations relief officials said.
“Nothing prepared us for what we saw,” Sajjad Malik, the United Nations acting humanitarian coordinator for Syria, told reporters Wednesday in a telephone briefing from Aleppo. “The infrastructure was destroyed in almost every neighborhood.”
Mr. Malik said more than 100 United Nations relief workers from several agencies were helping civil defense teams remove debris and provide emergency food, water, shelter and medical care in the city, where four million people once lived.
He estimated that 1.5 million people remain in Aleppo, mostly on the western side, including roughly 400,000 Syrians displaced from other areas. He also said thousands of displaced residents from the eastern side were starting to return, even if their homes and businesses were badly damaged or destroyed.
“They’re beginning to talk about rebuilding their lives and livelihoods,” Mr. Malik said. But he cautioned that “Aleppo’s reconstruction is going to take a much longer time and way more resources than we have right now.”