Children have been hit particularly hard as Syrians struggle to access water in Aleppo, according to UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children.
Aleppo – divided between areas controlled by the Syrian government and others held de facto by rebel groups – was enduring an intense heat wave as water supplies ran dry last month.
Residents were forced to wait in long lines at water stations for small rations, while others were so desperate that they resorted to using untreated water – putting them at risk of illness. “People are thirsty. We are sick of this situation,” Umm Abdullah, an Aleppo resident, recently told Syria Deeply. “Every night I pray to wake up the next day and find Syria the way it was before.” Since the beginning of July, 41 percent of children who visited UNICEF-supported clinics in Aleppo were suffering from diarrhea, the group reports.
“The disruption to piped water supplies – which in some cases was deliberately implemented by parties to the conflict –increased the risk of water-borne disease especially among children,” according to UNICEF. Though water supplies have now been restored, the ongoing civil war threatens to disrupt them again at any moment, says Juliette Touma, a communication specialist at UNICEF.
Syria Deeply: How much of Aleppo has been affected by this water shortage?
Juliette Touma: According to our reports, these water cuts have been impacting all sides of the city. Not just one side, but the other as well. We can say this crisis has impacted the whole city. The thing is that it came at the worst time possible because of the heat wave. This is the heaviest heat wave that the region has gone through in a long time, with temperatures between 38 and 40 degrees [Celsius] inside Syria and in Aleppo. There are reports that the heat wave will go on till the end of the month.
On our side, we’re concerned about the children and the reports of dehydration and diarrhea. More than 40 percent of children [who have approached UNICEF clinics for assistance] are suffering from diarrhea. We have reports of children queuing up in long lines at water stations trying to get water. Little kids – four or five years old – waiting next to the water stations and trying to carry the heavy jugs of water in the middle of the day, when it’s very hot.
We have a number of concerns. What impact does this have on children’s health, especially on the younger ones? There has been an increase in diarrhea cases, and actually across the country there is an increase in water-borne diseases.
Another concern is that this could happen anytime and anywhere throughout the country. How do we respond? How do we coordinate our response? In the past few weeks, we’ve been trucking in water. We trucked in up to 2.5 million liters a day – that’s actually the highest amount we’ve done in Aleppo since the crisis began. It shows how severe the crisis was and how there was basically no water.
We also have a number of projects happening right now. We’re working on solutions other than just shipping water, such as providing families with wells so they have alternative sources. In general, there is a water crisis in Syria. This is because of the conflict and the damage done to the water infrastructure.
Syria Deeply: How representative is Aleppo of the humanitarian crisis in Syria?
Juliette Touma: Like I said, there is a water crisis in Syria right now. This crisis is a direct result of ongoing violence and hostilities, as well as damage to water infrastructure. It’s also because of the pressure put on certain communities, like areas where the displaced have come in. Aleppo is also the host of the biggest community of internally displaced Syrians. We see more pressure and more strain put on certain communities, especially those hosting the displaced, and that impacts their ability to provide services.
Even before this conflict, Syria was going through a severe drought in a number of areas. If you take internally displaced communities as an example, we can say that because of their living conditions, the availability of water is nowhere near what it should be. But that includes other services, such as sanitation and hygiene. There are reports of some shelters where up to 70 share one toilet.
Children are among those most impacted by all of this. Children who get severe diarrhea, for instance, could die.
Syria Deeply: How much is the water crisis worsening the living situation for people in besieged communities, where it is already difficult to obtain medicine and healthcare?
Juliette Touma: It’s a very important question. UNICEF estimates that there are up to two million children around the country that we cannot reach on a regular basis. These include children who live in areas under siege, but also children who live in areas not necessarily under siege but where there is heavy fighting.
There are children we cannot reach in areas all over the country because the violence is quite heavy. What we see is that, even when some areas calm down, sparks of violence pop up in other areas. These are children we should reach on a regular basis, but we’re unable to do so. By reaching them I mean provide them with medicine and aid.
Syria Deeply: How can the international community help to alleviate this water crisis and the broader crisis children are enduring in Syria?
Juliette Touma: If you zoom in on the situation of children, we estimate that inside Syria there are more than 5.6 million kids in need of assistance. That includes children who have been displaced – some have been displaced multiple times – and children who are caught in the line of fire. Recently that includes Aleppo, parts of Damascus, Idlib and other areas. That’s actually about 60 percent of the child population in Syria. Of course, outside Syria there are another two million children who have become refugees. That takes us to 7.6 million Syrian children – around 80 percent of the [country’s] child population. Obviously that’s a big challenge – how do we respond to one of the biggest children’s crises in the world at the moment?
Children are facing displacement, need and a lack of schooling. Some children have missed out on five years of schooling. Five years can be a lifetime. Another group of children would’ve started in 2011, but they’ve actually never been to school yet and don’t know what a classroom looks like. We have other issues, such as polio coming back to Syria. Luckily, we’ve been able to contain it by delivering vaccines across the country. But there’s no guarantee it won’t come back.
The other aspect is the psychological impact that all of this is having on children. This hits all children – those in neighboring countries, those who have been taken [by armed groups] and certainly those who are witnessing the horrors of war. If something isn’t done we might end up losing a whole generation of Syrian children.
Photo courtesy of Tamer Osman