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After being without running water for two weeks, 11-year-old Afnan’s family turned to a private vendor. “The water we bought was very expensive and it tasted strange,” said Afnan.
Water cuts are adding to the hardships faced by people living in the Syrian capital Damascus. Millions of people have been without running water for weeks and children are particularly hard hit. UNICEF has started emergency water trucking to priority schools in Damascus, benefitting more than 90,000 school children.
By Yasmine Saker
DAMASCUS, Syrian Arab Republic, 16 January 2017 – An estimated 5.5 million people, including 2 million children, have been cut off from running water for over three weeks in Damascus and its surroundings – the longest cut the Syrian city has seen.
Intense fighting damaged the water infrastructure for the two main drinking water sources for Damascus-Ain El Fijeh and Wadi Barada – located in a mountainous valley near the capital.
A water rationing programme was initiated by local authorities allowing some neighborhoods to receive running water for up to two hours every three or four days, barely enough to cover basic needs.
“When my father tells us it’s our turn to receive water, we prepare everything we can fill at home – bottles, jerry cans, pots and pans,” said Bashir, a 12-year-old boy living in the Al-Midan neighborhood of Damascus. “When the water comes, it’s just like a party for us!” he added.
12-year-old Ibrahim hasn’t received running water at home since the beginning of the water crisis. “Every other day I help my father connect a hose from the garden to a small tank in our house, otherwise we can’t even wash our hands.”
Severe water shortages raise health concerns
As the water crisis continues, families have resorted to alternatives such as buying water from private vendors for double the price with no guarantees on quality or safety. Such practices raise concerns about the risk of waterborne diseases, particularly amongst children.
In some areas in Damascus, people are paying up to US$12 for 1,000 litres of water from private companies. The same volume of water used to cost just US$5 one year ago.
Last week, Bashir was hospitalized due to abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting. "At the hospital, they told me that the cause might be contaminated food or water," said Bashir who missed two days of school when he fell ill.
12-year-old Bashir and his family fled violence near their home in rural Damascus almost four years ago and have been displaced three times since then. Bashir was hospitalized due to abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting that may have been caused by contaminated food or water.
Children bear the brunt of water cuts
The burden of collecting water disproportionately falls on children. Many have to wake up before dawn to queue at local water distribution points before they run dry.
Walking long distances under the weight of heavy jerry cans has become daily routine for many children. Time that should be spent playing, studying or resting is replaced by hours of collecting water.
Every other day after school, Dania, 11, walks to a nearby mosque with her father and grandfather, carrying a 10-litre jerry can to collect water. The 15-minute journey feels longer on the way back.
“I get tired on the way back, but I take a break every few steps. I also drag the jerry can when I can’t carry it anymore,” said Dania. “I don’t ask my father for help because he usually carries two or three jerry cans every time, so I try to help even though my arms and lower back hurt,” she added.
Abdulrahman, 12, goes through the same struggle every day. Instead of doing homework, resting or playing with friends, he spends hours fetching water for his family.
“Every day after school I tie three empty jerry cans to my bike and head to a nearby mosque to fill them. It’s tiring but I’m the eldest of my siblings so I have to do it for my family,” he said. “Without water we will die”
The long water cuts have left some residents with few options. Some families are forced to use water from untreated boreholes that have not been used in years.
A father told a UNICEF team, “if we get sick we can get treated – but without water we will die.”
Around 700,000 people in Damascus, most living in elevated areas, have not had any water for more than three weeks due to a reduced volume of water coming from underground wells. Since water from the mains was cut on 22 December 2016 the wells are the only source for millions of people.
Severe water shortages are putting additional strain on families already suffering from long power cuts and a lack of gas and heating oil in the midst of a bitter cold weather.
A UNICEF-supported water truck delivers water to a school in the Al-Midan neighborhood of the capital Damascus. UNICEF has already provided generator sets and is delivering 15,000 litres of fuel daily to increase water pumping capacity, as well as trucking water to 90 priority schools around Damascus.
UNICEF emergency response
As part of its wider water, hygiene and sanitation response in Damascus, UNICEF has already rehabilitated and equipped 120 underground water wells in and around Damascus, which cover up to one-third of the daily water needs in the city. These water wells are currently in full operation to respond to the ongoing severe water shortages.
UNICEF is supporting water wells and pumping stations with fuel, spare parts and repairs to increase water production and pumping to a maximum of 200,000 cubic metres per day to reach up to 3.5 million people with drinking water.
In order to ensure a suitable learning environment for children, UNICEF started emergency water trucking to 90 priority schools in Damascus, benefitting more than 90,000 school children.
UNICEF is standing ready to support repair work of the damaged water source and network as soon as access is granted to ease the suffering of children and their families.