Syria: Water shortage hits Aleppo

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A Syrian boy pushes a cart with jerrycans filled with water in Aleppo on May 8, 2014 as residents of the northern city suffer constant water shortages due to the three-year-long conflict. (Photo: Baraa al-Halabi)

By: Basel Dayoub

Published Monday, May 12, 2014

Residents of Aleppo have not suffered from a water shortage since 1776, when they sang the popular Aleppan song “Quench the Thirsty.” But thirst is hitting Aleppo today amid signs of a looming humanitarian disaster.

The rate of mortar shells and barrel bombs falling on Aleppo has declined but Aleppans are facing a different kind of disaster after the city’s supply of potable water was completely cut off. “The situation signals a humanitarian and health disaster but we are doing what we can to avert this risk,” a source in the Syrian Red Crescent tells Al-Akhbar.

The plan of the Red Crescent and government agencies succeeded in providing some drinking water from wells, but continuing to do that, even for a short time, is unhealthy for residents. “Home use is vital and a lot of homes no longer have water for safe consumption. Many of the trucks selling water are trucks that collect wastewater from homes, which is polluted and dangerous,” adds the source.

A source at the Aleppo Water Department explained to Al-Akhbar that “the terrorists control the pumping station in the Suleiman al-Halabi region and they do not respect any agreements with the Red Crescent. Everyday, the station needs two diesel tanks [to power it] because the power line that feeds it is out of service.”

He pointed out that “the Sharia Authority controls the station and there are major disagreements between its leaders and we as an institution have no direct relationship with them except through the Red Crescent, especially since they killed a number of our staff.” The source pointed to the “danger of insurgents pumping water only to the neighborhoods that they control as it might lead to the collapse of the integrated water system and the difficulty of maintaining it. This would deprive two million citizens of water, including people living in areas under the terrorists’ control.”

The people’s suffering

For a week now, queues of women and children have become ubiquitous in front of mosque fountains and government wells in order to fill small containers such as cooking pots, teapots and plastic bottles as well as small barrels. A number of officials and those working with them on the other hand, get trucks to pump water into their house tanks amid the anger of the people.

There are often fights at these long queues because members of the Popular Committees do not wait for their turn but rather force some truck drivers to fill their own home water tanks first.

Laila Nairbani who lives in al-Midan neighborhood says: “It is a demeaning sight for every Syrian citizen to see all this shoving to fill a bucket of water. What is even harder to see is what members of the Popular Committees are doing.”

The queues are not just in poor neighborhoods. All the city’s neighborhoods are suffering from a water shortage and the city is full of displaced people. Mosque wells and the wells operated by the Red Crescent are working 24 hours a day. The city council did not hesitate to provide residents with drinking water randomly in different streets of the city.

The water shortage has turned this resource into a hot trading item. Ayman, an investor in a touristic restaurant, says that “he paid 20,000 Syrian pounds (SP) or about US$ 130 for 20 square meters of water. The government used to provide us with tap water. The price of one meter is SP 7.00. But that’s the only option I would have or close the restaurant.”

“Quench the Thirsty” is one of the most famous traditional Aleppan songs that Aleppans listened to growing up. But they repeat it today because they are at the mercy of the mood of the armed groups controlling the station that pumps drinking water. The city’s water network is about 2,400 km and it is fed by two pumping stations, both of them fall under the control of the insurgents. The first is in Bab al-Nairab, which provides water for the eastern part of the city that falls under the control of the insurgents and therefore has no problems. The second feeds the western side of the city and neighborhoods that are also full of fighters. The area of Huraytan in the northern countryside is fed by a pumping station in the Sulaiman al-Halabi area which, just like the city of Aleppo, is suffering from water shortages.

The opposition water department

The Sharia Authority tried to create its own water department staffed with defected employees and workers. But this attempt failed miserably. Soon, the agency became the center of factional competition and infighting. According to sources, al-Nusra Front asked for US$ 4,000 for a chlorine cylinder after it seized control of the chlorine factory near Deir Hafer and prevented the employees of a government agency from receiving the amounts agreed upon with the factory to purify the water. These internal struggles meant either “cutting off the water to the city or pumping it without purification.”

After that, the opposition fighters left the burden of providing drinking water to the state. The government water agency now runs this service with the cooperation of the Syrian Red Crescent. The Red crescent transfers diesel and disinfectants to the agency and the agency continued to send its technical workers to operate and maintain the station.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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