In Damascus, Little Water, Little Education
Imagine not having enough water to drink, shower, wash your hands, do laundry, or cook with. Black marketers are selling water on the street, but you can’t afford it.
That is the situation that most of the five million people in and around Damascus now face. The capital city is in the third week of a severe water shortage. Along with the basic humanitarian need for water, the lack of water is also slowly drying up education.
Humanitarian agencies are increasingly concerned about a rise in diarrheal diseases among children, who could then become dehydrated. Sending children to schools carries risks of infections.
“I stopped sending my three kids to school ten days ago. I am afraid of head lice or them getting sick as there is not any water in the schools’ bathrooms,” said Maha Rustom, a mother of three children in Damascus.
The bathrooms at the University of Damascus have “out of service” signs on them. The students have a slight reprieve as they are studying for exams, but that reprieve will not last long.
UNICEF has also reported that children are taking on the burden of water collection for their families. Most children are walking at least half an hour to collect water from the nearest mosque or public water point, UNICEF reported. They are waiting in line for up to two hours in freezing temperatures.
The two primary sources of clean and safe drinking water, which served 70 percent of the population in and around Damascus, are not functioning due to their deliberate targeting, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported last week.
Since December 22, the supply from the Ain al- Fijah spring outside of Damascus has been cut, which left Damascus residents without a water supply, forcing them to purchase water from private vendors. The prices of bottled water and trucked water supplied by private traders to residential homes have tripled, with a black market now thriving. Those who have made the mistake of drinking or accidentally swallowing tap water are winding up at hospitals, apparently with poisoning or infections.
On the black market, “a one-liter bottle costs 250 Syrian pounds (half a dollar), a tank costs 10,000 Syrian pounds ($20) and my [monthly] salary does not exceed 35,000 Syrian pounds ($70),” said Mostafa, a school teacher in Mezzeh area, southwest of central Damascus. “I went early to school last week as I thought I could take a shower quickly there. But I could not even use the bathroom, which was out of service as there also is no water at school.” Just to meet basic survival needs, humans need 7.5 to 15 liters of clean water a day, according to the World Health Organization.
UNICEF has rehabilitated and equipped 120 wells in and around Damascus to provide for a third of residents’ daily water needs. This past week, daily trucking of water resumed to 50 schools in Damascus, an effort that will reach up to 30,000 children. Also, Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have delivered over a thousand cubic meters of water to Damascus hospitals, schools and refugee centers.
“We rented a room at a hotel last week just to let the kids have a shower,” said Ziad Yaghi a taxi driver and a father of four. “My kids are still going to school, but we give them some boiled water to drink during the day and some wipes too. This is incredible – we spent five years without electricity, gas and heating but without water we can’t live.”
At the start of the water crisis, the Syrian authorities accused rebels of polluting the water with diesel fuel and other toxic liquids and said the government had to cut off the water for safety and security reasons. Later, some videos posted on Facebook showed the severe damage the spring has suffered due to bombing. The authorities accused rebels of bombing the spring. The spring is located about 20 kilometers northwest of Damascus in the Barada River valley (Wadi Barada). The rebels have denied poisoning the water or bombing it and published several videos and pictures showing that regime jets bombed the spring. They are also trapped inside the town without water, electricity, mobile or internet connection for 20 days, with diseases starting to spread due to the lack of clean water.
Until now, all deals to fix the water supply of Damascus have failed, and ground wells around the city, even at maximum capacity, can only cover about a third of the minimum water requirement of around 600,000 cubic meters a day, according to UNICEF.
“After midterm exams and if the crisis continues, I will not send my children to school,” said Maher Mohamed, a father of two kids. “When we can’t get a cup of clean water to drink, education will be a luxury.”