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Humanitarian aid to Syria must target water authorities’ maintenance and disinfection needs, as both the regime and opposition forces are failing to respond to the country’s escalating food and water crisis.
A boy collects water from the side of a road in a rebel-held area in Aleppo on 12 May 2014. Residents of Aleppo have been without water for more than a week because jihadists have cut supplies into rebel and regime-held areas. Photo by Zein al-Rifai/AFP/GA boy collects water from the side of a road in a rebel-held area in Aleppo on 12 May 2014. Residents of Aleppo have been without water for more than a week because jihadists have cut supplies into rebel and regime-held areas. Photo by Zein al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images.

Syria’s essential services are on the brink of collapse under the burden of continuous assault on critical water infrastructure. The stranglehold of extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), neglect by the regime, and an eighth summer of drought may combine to create a water and food crisis which would escalate fatalities and migration rates in the country’s ongoing three-year conflict.

The capability of state agencies to respond to water, food and shelter crises is diminishing. The warning signs are clear for what could result in a far worse refugee crisis than the conflict has produced to date. The UN, neighbouring countries and the wider international community have a responsibility to collaborate in the next few months, in order to limit the extent of human suffering.

Water as a weapon 

The deliberate targeting of water supply networks and related structures is now a daily occurrence in the conflict. The water pumping station in Al-Khafsah, Aleppo stopped working on 10 May, cutting off water supply to half of the city. It is unclear who was responsible; both the regime and opposition forces blame each other, but unsurprisingly in a city home to almost three million people the incident caused panic and chaos. Some people even resorted to drinking from puddles in the streets. 

Attacks and counter-attacks have destroyed several waste water treatment and sewage facilities in the country. Damage to the sewage system in Aleppo, for example, has resulted in the contamination of drinking water. Warnings to citizens to boil all tap water were issued in the city this month. But, with the rising prices of black-market fuel, boiled water is itself a luxury that most of the besieged population cannot afford. Disinfection of the water supply system now needs a two-day fresh water flush, during which time the water supply would be inaccessible –  making it a an unpalatable action, given the current water shortage.

The effects of the diversion and destruction of key water infrastructure, including dams, water pipes and waste treatment plants − compounded by the loss of skilled workers − is felt acutely in the country’s largest cities. Hama and Homs have lost water supplies over several consecutive weeks, due to attacks on the water treatment plant on the banks of the Orontes River and on the water pipeline conveying treated water to the two cities. Waterborne disease cases, including typhoid, are on the rise in the Euphrates region, where it has been difficult to supply disinfection chemicals.

ISIS-controlled water resources

ISIS now has control of the Euphrates’ major water structures within Syria. This includes Al-Raqqa Dam, one of the biggest dams in the Middle East, which controls the river flow for most of the irrigated lands downstream of Al-Raqqa and supplies 19 per cent of the country’s electrical power.

The Euphrates River, which provides 65 per cent of the country's water needs, is also experiencing a dangerous decrease in its flow rates. This is likely to be due to a combination of factors: decades of poor water management, current neglect of water infrastructure on the Euphrates, and the absence of any coordination between Syria and upstream Turkey regarding the river flow. As a result, in late May, the river dried up downstream of Al-Raqqa city, depriving many downstream towns of water. The water level of Al-Assad Lake – Syria’s largest reservoir, which provides irrigation for some 500 square miles of agricultural land and all of Aleppo’s drinking water − has dropped by six meters since ISIS took control in January. If the lake loses one more metre the water system will stop working. This will leave more than four million inhabitants without access to safe water. This could result in a humanitarian catastrophe that would overwhelm agencies on the ground.

Food crisis imminent

A food crisis could also be just months away. The drought in the Euphrates region, the bread basket of the country, has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the production of wheat, which began well before the 2011 uprising. The Food & Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reported earlier this year that the country’s production of wheat had dropped to 18 per cent of its annual average. Syria has gone from self-sufficiency in wheat production to import dependence. The Syrian government has organized a number of international bid requests to buy wheat based on Iranian bank credits, due to the poor classification of its economy.

The collapse of wheat production and the absence of state food support in the Euphrates region are responsible for unprecedented migration. Hundreds of towns are now deserted. Wheat is the staple food for the poor in Syria. The government used to keep a strategic reserve of wheat, enough for at least three years. This has gone. Many farmers are unable to generate the living income they need, which increases the number of people dependent on humanitarian and international aid. Those who are unable to migrate, and beyond the reach of food aid distributions due to the conflict, could find themselves at risk of starvation.

A state of denial

In spite of these alarming indications, both Syria’s regime and opposition groups are in a state of denial: neither is responding to, or preparing for, a food and water crisis. All efforts are concentrated on fighting; management and maintenance of water resources are left to a dwindling number of international agencies and local professionals. Any sudden supply disruption or contamination could lead to a huge outflow of people, which would further overwhelm refugee services in neighbouring countries.

It is essential that the UN establishes safe routes for humanitarian aid from countries surrounding Syria to ensure that vital supplies reach the affected zones without interference from either the regime or the opposition. This humanitarian aid should include water authorities’ maintenance and disinfection needs and should supply farmers in the affected areas with support for next season’s crops to help stave off an impending tragedy.

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