Recovery effort begins after Syrian dam collapse

Situation Report
Originally published
Written by Mason Anderson, Staff Writer,
On June 4, 2002, the 1,000 residents of Zeyzoun, a village in northern Syria, were enjoying a typical day. At 3:00 p.m., however, everything changed when the unthinkable occurred. Large cracks were discovered in the Zeyzoun Dam, a massive structure measuring more than 3 miles wide and 140 feet high - and water was leaking out.

News quickly spread via the mosque loudspeaker and all residents were urged to evacuate the village, located only 330 feet from the base of the dam. With no time to waste, villagers dropped everything and moved to higher ground.

An hour later, nothing remained of Zeyzoun village. More than 300 feet of the dam had collapsed, releasing the fury of some 20 million tons of water it once restrained.

A wall of water quickly tore through the region, killing 20 people and washing away houses, cattle, hospitals, schools, water pumps and vehicles in five villages, stopping only when the water hit and joined the Orontes River more than 8 miles away.

Volunteers and staff of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC) were the first to arrive at the site where Zeyzoun once stood. Instead of a village, they found nothing but layers of mud and silt. Even the signature golden dome of the mosque had been washed away.

Although the village was completely destroyed, no residents of Zeyzoun were killed thanks to the prompt warning by the Imam of the mosque and the rapid evacuation. Other areas, however, were not so lucky.

Massive damages and 20 deaths were reported in the nearby villages of Ziyara, Msheek, Qarqoor, Al-Bahsa and Tal-Waset. In all, an estimated 10,000 people were affected by the dam collapse and 2,000 were left completely homeless.

The long-term effects of the disaster, however, could be the most destructive. Thousands of acres of crops were wiped out and the region's richly irrigated land has been replaced by mud, meaning that crops that should have been harvested in the next year have been lost, leaving residents with no food and no livelihood.

Global Community Comes to the Rescue

Upon arriving at the scene in Zeyzoun, the SARC immediately went to work. Volunteers and staff distributed food to the needy and erected 50 tents to shelter families who had returned to their destroyed village. A tent warehouse was established to receive assistance coming from the Red Crescent in Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Iraq.

With their primary water source gone, the SARC promptly organized truckloads of clean water and distributed 5-gallon containers so that villagers could carry water to their tents

Some 50 SARC volunteers, including three doctors, worked around the clock at the disaster site. The Hama branch of the Red Crescent made plans to expand the area of its action to include Ziyara and Msheek, the other two most heavily affected villages.

Two days after the collapse of the dam, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Federation) issued an emergency appeal for $370,000 to aid the recovery effort.

The American Red Cross contributed $10,000 to support the recovery effort.

"We contributed the money in response to the Federation's appeal targeted to fund search and rescue missions, healthcare assistance, water sanitation programs and food distributions," said Matthew Parry, Regional Associate for Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The Syrian government has provided financial compensation and limited amounts of food to the affected population and is responsible for the management of water and sanitation efforts.

The massive damages caused by the dam collapse brought an outpouring of assistance from governments around the world. Governments from Japan, Iraq, Italy, Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia contributed everything from pharmaceuticals and surgeons to food and blankets.

One of the most remarkable of responses was that of Saudi billionaire, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who single-handedly has offered to finance the rebuilding of the destroyed Zeyzoun village. Al-Waleed's pledge includes the construction of homes, schools, hospitals and the local mosque as well as all telephone, electricity, sewage and water systems.

In response to Al-Waleed's generous donation, the Syrian government has decided to change the name of Zeyzoun to "Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Village".

American Red Cross
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