In Damascus, water cuts and crumbling sewage systems pose serious health risks
By Monica Awad
When water was shut off to the Syrian city of Damascus this winter, Kawthar’s family was forced to ration and re-use as much of the precious resource as they could. Their living conditions only worsened when the sewage system overflowed inside their home. Learn how UNICEF is helping to improve water, sanitation and hygiene in the besieged city.
DAMASCUS, Syrian Arab Republic, 13 April 2017 – For 37-year-old Kawthar and her eight-year-old son Mohammed, life has become unbearable.
Kawthar got divorced a few years back and moved to live at her parent’s house in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Damascus. She lives with her mother, two brothers and sister.
“We have no option but to squeeze ourselves together at night, because my parents’ house is tiny, with only two bedrooms,” says Kawthar pointing to one of the single beds in a dark, shabby room.
What exacerbated the family’s living condition was not the continued shelling, but the water cuts, which lasted for over 40 days during the winter.
Water was shut off to Damascus and its surrounding areas in late December 2016, following attacks on the two main sources – Wadi Barada and Ein El Fijeh springs. The cuts left an estimated 5.5 million people without access to safe water, increasing their risk of water-borne diseases.
“In Syria, water has been used as a weapon of war by all parties to the conflict,” says Hanaa Singer, Representative in UNICEF Syria. “Water sources have been deliberately shut off, water infrastructure has been attacked and damaged, and water workers were denied access to maintain, repair, and operate water networks.” In 2016, the United Nations has documented 30 such tactics in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Raqqa and Dara’a.
Kawthar and her family, like millions of people in Damascus area, were forced to ration water when water was cut. In her tiny kitchen, Kawthar recalls how they used to pile up the dirty dishes and wash them once a day so that they would not waste water. She also remembers how they had to wash their laundry by hand to save water, and then re-use the water to clean the floor.
In recent weeks, UNICEF has completed emergency water repairs in seven different locations in Wadi Barada and the Ein El Fijeh spring to restore water flow. As a result, access to water has significantly improved for the 5.5 million people residing in Damascus and surrounding areas.
UNICEF’s team was able to monitor the on-going water repair work in Ein El Fijeh and Wadi Barada after the team was granted access during the first ever humanitarian convoy to Wadi Barada.
Located in one of the poorest and historical neighbourhoods of Damascus, Kawthar’s house was severely impacted by rainfall during the winter season. And to make things worse, the main sewage system, which is old and poorly maintained, started clogging up with dirt and debris.
One morning, Kawthar and her family found themselves surrounded by raw sewage. A sewer system located at the entrance of Kawthar’s house had flooded, and toxic sewage was everywhere. It destroyed the flooring, drywall, furniture and anything that it came in contact with.
“The whole house was in a state of chaos. Sewer roaches, rats, ants, cockroaches invaded our house,” Kawthar recalls with outrage. “I used to disinfect the whole house, and I even brought some cats, but it was not enough to protect us from the invading pests.”
Like most people across the Syrian Arab Republic, Kawthar and her family are struggling to make ends meet, and the sewer flooding overstretched their already meagre household income. “We lost thousands of Syrian Pounds as a result of the sewer floods,” she says.
For Mohammad, the entrance of the house used to be his main play area. Like most mothers in the country, Kawthar did not allow Mohammad to play outside the house and risk being injured or killed by the constant shelling.
“I used to play ball with my next door neighbour Abdel-Ghani at the entrance of the house, but when the sewer flooded, my mom did not allow me to play there,” he says.
Kawthar usually wakes up early to get Mohammad ready for school. During the past two years, as the family suffered from the sewer system clogging, she woke up before dawn to clean the entrance of the house to enable Mohammad to go to school.
The plight of the conflict is beyond the scores of death, injuries, and internal displacement of children and their families. Kawthar’s family is one of the millions of Syrian people enduring unimaginable suffering due to the six years of war.
“No one in Syria is spared from the brutality of the conflict,” says Singer. “Coping mechanisms are eroding fast and families are taking extreme measures just to survive.”
Dreams never cease to end
A month ago, UNICEF and partners repaired the sewer system in Kawthar’s neighbourhood, enabling the family to restore some sense of normalcy amidst the chaotic life they have been living.
Mohammad and Abdel-Ghani resumed playing ball at the entrance of the house.
“I want to become an accountant,” says Mohammad playfully. As a third grade student, Mohammad is among the best students in class. “My favourite class is mathematics,” he says.
“He is my only son, and I am always scared for his life,” says Kawthar. “Before the conflict, I used to take my son to a nearby park to play, but now, he is always home with me, and on weekends he sometimes goes with his father to visit his paternal grandmother.”
Six million children in the Syrian Arab Republic are in need of humanitarian assistance. Yet, despite this chaos, there are many remarkable stories of children and families like Mohammad who are determined to pursue their hopes, dreams and aspirations for a better future.
“UNICEF’s work is more urgent than ever to support children to realize their dreams,” says Singer. “More importantly, Syrian children and their families have one wish – to return to their homes and to live in peace and dignity, and we must provide them with the opportunity to do just that.”