As temperatures in parts of Syria climb into the 90s Fahrenheit, many of the newly displaced, both inside and outside the country, are fleeing not just ongoing violence, but the conditions of extreme water scarcity.
Earlier this month, UNICEF released a comprehensive report on the state of Syria’s water supply. The children’s aid organization found that the availability of safe water in Syria is now just one-third of pre-crisis levels.
The scarcity comes from multiple factors: thus far in 2014, most parts of Syria have received only half the average rainfall for this time of the year, which has put significant stress on reservoirs before the peak hot season of July and August. Some areas are only receiving water once every three weeks. And environmental conditions have been made worse by the ongoing clashes between the government and opposition forces, who have been using the water supply as a weapon of war.
UNICEF says Aleppo’s main water pumping station, which typically provides 125 million liters per day, was deliberately put out of service by unknown fighters, leaving at least 2.5 million people without clean water and sanitation for 10 days. Fighting has caused ongoing, severe damage to the country’s water and sanitation infrastructure, including sewage systems and other pumping stations. This, in turn, has contributed to the spread of communicable disease.
We asked Juliette Touma, UNICEF’s Middle East communications specialist, to weigh in.
Syria Deeply: How do you explain the current state of water scarcity?
Juliette Touma: It’s related to the violence, but it’s also related to the fact that last winter was very dry across the region – there was little rainfall. And inside Syria, there has been severe damage to the infrastructure of water because of the violence. Water availability now in Syria is one-third of what it was before the conflict, in 2011. This is an average – some areas might have a much lower availability. It’s a grim picture.
Syria Deeply: What can be done to reverse this?
Touma: We started working on delivering water just after the conflict began, and last year we really boosted our efforts to work with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, to provide people with clean water. So far, with them we have managed to give nearly 17 million people clean water, mostly through chlorine purification: putting chlorine in the water, then also through water tablets and tanks and other things.
Syria Deeply: What are the biggest concerns for you right now in regards to water?
Touma: We’re really worried because we have a huge funding gap in the water sector. If we don’t get the funding, we are at the risk of having to scale down our operation. Water sanitation and hygiene is our biggest sector – and it’s the most underfunded right now.
We are also concerned about more displacement, more people moving, more people leaving their homes – and not just because of the violence, but because of water scarcity. We have seen people move from one area to another [to find water]. That’s what we don’t want to see. We want to make sure people have water for drinking and washing up. If you don’t have hygiene kits and clean water and sanitation, you are super-prone to disease, especially if you are a child.
We give hygiene kits to people who have just been displaced and who often have run away with just the clothes on their bodies. They do not have things we take for granted, like a towel, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, washing powder. These are critical items for someone who’s just been displaced. It’s very hot out, and these things protect people from falling ill.
Syria Deeply: How does lack of access, especially when installing something like a generator, factor into water distribution?
Touma: It all comes down to access. Like in other areas including immunization and education, in water all our work is subject to getting access to areas where heavy conflict is taking place, to areas under siege. It is critical for us to reach these areas and provide these water tanks and generators, and to get commitment from whoever is in control of that piece of land to maintain and protect these items.
Syria Deeply: A month into a hot summer, what is the water team’s biggest challenge?
Touma: The big challenge for us is finding financial resources – it’s critical. We are really short of money, specifically in the water sanitation and hygiene sector, which is led by UNICEF. It remains the least funded sector, but it is where most of the critical needs are.
It’s important to flag how critical this issue is, not just in Syria but in the neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq and Jordan. We have tried to draw a picture of how severe the shortage is across the region. Now with the new crisis in Iraq, we are talking about a regional crisis here. The summer is not looking great: we just had a heat wave, and water is really running dry.
In Iraq, the most vivid memory I have, having just returned, is the mothers I have seen who just wanted to have drinking water because they’ve just walked in the sun to escape violence. I spoke to women who just wanted to have a shower. They had [homes with] showers, they had running water, and then suddenly they don’t. And there’s a sense of shock, that they don’t have it anymore.