“We are back to the stone age”. That’s what a Syrian in Damascus would tell you if you ask him about the situation. The Syrian capital suffers from long electricity cuts and gas and oil shortages. People have no means of heating during these cold winter days. What makes the situation catastrophic however is a water crisis.
Over five million people in Damascus spent their New Year without water. On 22 December the supply from the Ain al- Fijah spring was cut off. This crucial single source water was lifeline for the region. It supplies 70 percent of the water for Damascus and its environs. It’s located about 20 km northwest of Damascus in the Barada River valley (Wadi Barada).
The government says that rebels, who have occupied Wadi Barada since 2012, poisoned the water supply at its source by dumping mass quantities of diesel fuel into the spring. Fighters from the area have cut water supplies several times in the past as a pressure card to prevent the army from overrunning the area.
A battle is taking place now in Barada Valley between the Syrian Army and the rebels to take control of the source of water for Damascus. While a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey announced last week has reduced overall violence across the country, it has not stopped the fighting everywhere, and the fighting near the Barada Valley has continued despite this agreement.
For millions of Damascus residents, long-term concerns about the direction of the war in Syria have been replaced by worries about where to get enough water to drink, do the dishes, wash clothes or take a shower. Since 22 December, 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.
Although people in Damascus were 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.
Mostapha is 55 year old man and a father of four children. He said when he received a Caritas food voucher, “Yesterday I waited for three hours in line to be able to have some drinkable water from a public garden near my house. When I reached the faucet, the water was cut. Now I will use a part of this voucher to buy a quantity of drinkable water, if the shop has any. Most of the grocery stores are short of water now.”
— Caritas (@iamCARITAS) January 7, 2017
The Syrian government has sought to ease the crisis by trucking water from wells around the city, but many people had received nothing. Some were buying water from private tankers, while others took advantage of whatever they could get. Unfortunately, prices of bottled water and trucked water supplied by private traders to residential homes has tripled, with a black market now thriving.
Sarah, a case worker and a mother of two children said: “Yesterday I bought some water from a trader who was passing by. It was very expensive and I didn’t know the source of this water, whether it is clean or not, but I didn’t have another choice. My tank has been empty for five days and I need to give shower to my kids and do the laundry. We don’t have any clean clothes to wear”.
The lack water has raised the risk of waterborne disease, especially among children.
Roula, a 39 year old woman, a mother of three children said, “My children developed a rash after I gave them a shower with some water I bought from a trader. We couldn’t sleep that night. I took them to the doctor who told me that he received many cases like this during this week, and it is because of the polluted water we are forced to buy.”
Ground wells around Damascus, even at maximum capacity, can only cover about a third of the minimum water demand, according to UNICEF.
Moufida, a 40 years old woman and a mother of six children, said, “I had not had running water at home for more than 13 days. I can’t afford buying water. I send my sons every morning to the mosque; they wait in line for hours each day to fill jugs from the well. We use that to drink and to wash dishes, and we collect the run-off to flush the toilet.”
“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 cola bottle turned into a tap to wash teacups. “When you cut off the water, we dig for water. When you cut off the tap, we make a tap.”
The beginning of the year 2017 was full of hardship and exhaustion for people in Damascus. War has made us very good in finding alternative solutions for the problems we are facing every day, like electricity and oil crisis, but no one can find an alternative for water. We wish that this nightmare will end up soon.