World Water Day in Syria
Today, 22 March 2017, is World Water Day. World Water Day is about taking action to tackle water crises globally. Today in Syria, 12.1 million people require water and sanitation assistance. The water and sanitation crisis felt by millions in Syria is a result of multiple factors including: damages to infrastructure; the collapse of state-run public services in opposition areas; continuous displacement; and the weaponisation of water.
Since 2013, People in Need, with financial support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the European Union, has been working to improve communities’ access to safe water and functioning sanitation systems.
According to the 2017 Syria Humanitarian Needs Overview, many water and waste systems established before the conflict operate at only a fraction of their design capacity today. In many opposition-held and besieged areas there is not the structural capacity or funding in place to ensure the adequate management and rehabilitation of such infrastructure and services today.
What do People in Need do to support water, sanitation and hygiene (wash) in Syria?
PIN’s WASH programme is designed to provide increased access to safe drinking water through rehabilitation of and provision of equipment for water supply networks; and ensure the provision of waste collection and sewage management services in targeted communities. As these services are provided on the local level, PIN simultaneously focuses on building the capacity of Local Councils in order to empower them to develop projects, manage services and find funding in order to continue the provision of such important services. In this way, both PIN’s WASH and Capacity Building teams work together to promote better access to and quality of water, sanitation and hygiene.
Since 2015, PIN has implemented over 60 WASH projects including rehabilitation and extension of water networks and sewage systems, and the construction of landfills. PIN has also provided dozens of trainings to local authorities to improve the quality and management of these WASH services. In 2016, over 30 local bodies were trained in the fields of transparency and accountability, WASH needs assessments, operation and maintenance, and more.
Why is wash so important?
Without suitable access to safe drinking water through the public system, communities resort either to water trucking – an expensive alternative which puts considerable and unnecessary strain on family finances – or consumes unsafe water. Today, it is estimated that 50 % of the population must meet their water needs through such alternative sources.
In terms of health, the issue of poor access to and quality of water presents a huge problem which is further compounded by the poor state of waste management services. With the onset of the conflict, the waste system in opposition-areas all but collapsed due to the lack of funds to cover basic running costs, including daily labour and fuel for trucks. As such many of the communal areas formerly used for waste disposal in PIN’s areas of operation had been left unsupervised, and waste management had become the responsibility of individual families. Consequently, waste was being dumped not only in the designated waste disposal areas but also in the surrounding areas, thereby creating an unsafe environment for the whole community.
PIN observed cases of skin conditions like Leishmaniasis as well as diarrhoea, Hepatitis A and typhoid caused and exacerbated by a lack of access to safe water and an unsafe hygiene environment. As such, PIN saw the urgent need for the restoration of sustainable WASH services through rehabilitation of infrastructure and provision of trainings to support operations and maintenance.
One example of a WASH project carried out by PIN’s Capacity Building department addressed the health impact of poor sewage management in Aqrabat, a village in Idleb 5 kilometres from the Turkish border. Due to the village’s location and relative stability, many families have been displaced into the area in recent years. The increase in number of people residing in Aqrabat consequently put great strain on the community’s resources and infrastructure. As a result, by late 2015, the village’s sewage system had become out of control. The majority of villagers were using septic holes, which would often become full causing sewage to overflow and run between the houses. The situation posed a great epidemiological risk to the community. At the situation’s most chronic stage, sewage running in the streets even blocked the road to the local hospital, making it difficult for residents and ambulances to gain access to medical services. Aqrabat Local Council attended trainings run by PIN’s Capacity Building team in late 2015 in order to learn more about project management and have the chance to apply for a grant from PIN to solve their sewage management problem.
Their proposal for a grant was successful and PIN’s Capacity Building team, with technical support from the WASH team, supported Aqrabat Local Council in their plans to install a new underground sewage line. After a few months, the sewage system was in operation and the risk of public sewage pollution and continued disease outbreaks were eliminated.
The Financial Impact
Poor water and sewage infrastructure and waste management services not only pose threats to the living environment of the affected population, exposing them to greater risk of diseases; but also affect the population’s livelihoods and the local economy. The inaccessibility of safe water has resulted in an increased reliance on private water trucking. The cost of water in the private market has increased and remains subject to fluctuations in the cost of fuel, and changes in supply and demand. In Babka village, where PIN gave support to the local WASH infrastructure last year, families had reported spending as much as a third of their monthly income on water alone.
The Impact of Displacement
Whilst the sanitation needs are considerably more acute among displaced populations living in informal or overcrowded settlements, WASH services in ‘host communities’ also suffer from waves of displacement. These communities providing refuge to their fellow country men and women must share already stretched resources and endure market prices rising with short supply and large demand. Wadah Jamo, the head of the relief office at a Local Council in Idleb, explains the challenges for host communities:
“The high increase in the population has put many burdens and challenges on local councils, host communities and even humanitarian organisations. It has meant that local councils have to try to adapt and find new resources especially with regard to providing sufficient drinking water and electricity. Humanitarian organisations play a vital role in reducing these burdens and alleviating the suffering of residents and displaced people alike.”
Water as a Weapon of War
On top of all this, we also continue to see water being used as a weapon of war in Syria. In 2016, on approximately 30 different occasions, water infrastructure and water supplies were directly attacked or deliberately turned to as a tactic of war. Millions of people living in major cities like Aleppo and Damascus suffered water shortages due to those tactics, in addition to the lack of maintenance and damage to the water systems.
With all the challenges facing the people of Syria today, we forget that millions of people are also suffering from a water crisis. As the war continues into its seventh year, we repeat our call for increased support to water and sewage networks. These networks require increased support to continue providing a minimum level of services.