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Inside Syrias water crisis- A cholera outbreak in the making - Syrian Arab Republic

Diseases come in different shapes and forms, but the ways they are treated share one fact - early action maximises the chances of a full recovery and lives saved.

In Syria, water scarcity is driven by multiple and complex factors that have for years left millions of Syrians relying on unsafe water sources. The crisis has been unfolding over time but only received serious attention when news broke of a cholera outbreak in Aleppo in late August -- the first such case in years.

A cholera outbreak in Syria was almost inevitable. 12 years of crises, caused by a conflict and exacerbated by a combination of a deteriorating economy and drought conditions, have meant that people, and their children, have less safe food to eat or water to drink. But cholera is not the only consequence of a chronic water crisis. All aspects of Syrian life are affected.

Unsafe water alternatives

Dham, a farmer, is calm and composed.There are qualities he has acquired from a lifetime spent in the fields in the northeastern city of Hasakah. Year after year, he cared with passion and patience for his crops, hoping and waiting for a good harvest to keep his family going.

“For two months now, we have not received water from Alouk [water station on the Syrian—Turkish border],” says Dham with a steady voice as he describes a struggle that would make the most patient of farmers feel justifiably angry and hurt.

“The harsh economic conditions have limited our community’s ability to purchase water. Instead, people increasingly rely on trucking water in, and some of this water comes from unsafe water sources.

“Due to the drought and lack of water, many farmers have to rely on sewage water for their crops. This can contaminate the vegetables they grow. Relying on unsafe water for drinking and irrigation has led to the outbreak of many intestinal diseases, including cholera, especially among children.”

Recent reports have revealed that in rural Deir ez-Zor, in the east of the country, 63 schools serving 31,000 students could not provide safe drinking water and sanitation facilities for their students, leading them to use unsafe river water to fill their tanks.

Water vanishing from Syrian rivers and lakes is rooted in many causes, among them are upstream water policies and ongoing hostilities. Farmers and villagers, as well as residents of cities, bear the brunt of the problem as they run out of water, and alternatives.

Heavily limited by collapsing purchasing power and unaffordable private potable water, Syrians have resorted to drilling wells, trucking water in and purchasing water. Those with barely enough to eat, now have to live with insufficient low-quality water.

This is the case in places like Al-Qaisa village in rural Damascus, where people have relied on the local borehole as their primary water source for years. Yahya, a resident of the area, describes how water sources have become depleted due to the drought.

“Four years ago, you could dig out water at a depth of one-two metres. Now the water has sunk down to 50 metres. This means we need longer pipes, different equipment and more energy to pump water up."

A snowballing energy crisis

“We are thirsty because there is no power,” says Mohamed, 25, a father of four. He lives with his family in Mujadrah village in rural Hasakah. Many people here are packing their bags, hoping to resettle in places where the situation is better. As across much of the country, the village rarely has electrical power. When it does, the network is often inconsistent- it comes and goes every 15 minutes. It is a factor pushing people to leave their homes.

“The families have resorted to buying water from nearby villages. Every three days they transport water using cars, if they were available, or donkeys. Many have to carry their buckets on their heads.” Mohamed explains.

Even with a borehole that was dug in the village, without the machinery and consistent power supply, there will be no water to pump up or distribute across the community. Unavailable or unaffordable fuel means private generators cannot make up for power cuts.

Reduced access to energy sources has jeopardised Syrians’ access to water; a frightening combination in an area where the power generation capacity has dropped by up to 70%. Once an exporter, the country now relies on energy imports, making it vulnerable to any shock in the energy market.

All of the three main sources for drinking water in Syria - groundwater, rivers and springs - depend on electric water pumps. Wells in good condition require at least five hours of uninterrupted electricity to pump water, and a further two hours are needed to fill the tanks in the homes.

Reduced access to public services

In the picturesque countryside of Hamah governorate, in the north of the country, conflict has left its mark on the landscape.

Abdelrahman farms his land in the rural Hamah village of Fan. Families in this area rely on a nearby borehole opened in 2000. Thirteen years later, the operating machinery room was destroyed in the conflict. Equipment was either looted or damaged, putting the borehole out of service.

“It affected all of us, human beings, buildings and trees, everyone and everything. Families were displaced from their villages; we left with nothing but the clothes we had on, and even those of us who had some savings spent them in a short period” explained Mohammad.

People here say they have returned to destroyed homes and had to start from scratch, rebuilding their lives ‘bit by bit’. Locals have to purchase water at a cost of 50,000 Syrian pounds – roughly $11 USD – a week. This might sound like a little but for many could be as much as a quarter of their monthly salary.

Facing the giants; displacement and an economic crisis

When you are displaced, the home you left behind turns into a beloved family member. You stand on your tiptoes, waiting for news. For hours, you stare at images looking for clues that could comfort your heart. Your long nights are full of prayers for its safety and for the moment you finally reunite.

In the neighbourhoods, war plays a reckless game. Like a giant, it stomps around and crushes a life with every step. Worried and full of anticipation, Raboaa, 85, returned to her home village of Ouwiejah in rural Aleppo and found that her home had dodged the giant’s steps. “Thank God, my home was safe”, she repeats, three years after she was first displaced to Raqqa with five other family members.

The nearby fighting in the area has decimated civilian infrastructure and homes. Just when Raboaa thought she could move on with her life, she found herself face to face with another giant- a severe economic crisis that crippled each step she took to improve her life.

Having enough safe water represented one of many desperate needs. Although water from the main reached homes, it was only available for two or three days a week. Most families had no tanks to save water for the rest of days.

“We cannot afford to buy a water tank so we use tins, buckets, and old oil barrel to store water. We try to manage and ration our use, but the water we can store is not sufficient, some days we and our poultry go thirsty.” Says Raboaa.

While the water might come from a safe water source, contamination can happen while transmitting it from one place to another or while storing it in unsafe conditions, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases. Thanks to generous support from the UAE Red Crescent, NRC supported the families by handing out water tanks and hygiene kits including soap, towels, nappies for babies and other personal hygiene items.

The cholera outbreak across Syria is a perfect example of the consequences of these conditions. Syria’s health system is overstretched and overwhelmed. People have to prioritise spending their money on food rather than medical care.

Rather than using vital funds to respond to a new emergency that could have been avoided, the people of Syria urgently need more long-term flexible funding for early recovery programming that can help tackle the root causes of the water crisis.

For Dham’s family, the loss of crops due to the lack of water and the drought, and the income loss that followed meant that his son Samir had to drop out of college.

“One year and a half ago I was a Pharmacy student. But in the third year I had to suspend my education due to the living conditions,” says Samir. Like many Syrian youths with no clear prospects for the future, he is now waiting for either stability in Syria or for an opportunity to leave the country.

“My dream is to continue my education; I don’t want to leave the country [because] my life and family are here. But due to the worsening living conditions, I think if I got the chance, I would leave the country for a better chance of living.”