Syria's water war reaches boiling point around Damascus

Syria's water war reaches boiling point around Damascus
Damascus relies on water from besieged rebel-held Wadi Barada, but either sabotage or regime bombing has stopped water flowing to Syria's capital.
5 min read
30 December, 2016
Advocacy groups say water has been used as a weapon in Syria's civil war [Getty]

Four million people in Damascus continue to have restricted access to mains water due to damage sustained to pipes and production sites feeding the Syrian capital.

It comes as the Syrian regime and rebel groups trade accusations over who is responsible for the cuts.

Mains water supplies reach Damascus from the Ain al-Fijah source, located in Wadi Barada - north-west of the Syrian capital, close to the mountainous Lebanese border region.

But this source has remained cut off since 22 December, depriving the city of 70 percent of its regular water supply.

Playing the blame game

The Syrian regime has accused rebels in the Wadi Barada region of contaminating the capital's water supply with diesel. 

However, counter claims made my opposition activists state that water infrastructures in the area have been damaged by regime bombardment rendering them inoperable. 

To support their claims opposition activists have uploaded videos to the internet appearing to show damage to water plants in the area they say were caused by regime airstrikes.

They also warned that civilian death tolls in Wadi Barada will only rise if attacks continue.

On Friday, despite the start of a Russia-Turkey brokered ceasefire for Syria on Thursday night, activists reported that fighting had once again erupted in Wadi Barada.

Earlier this week President of the Syrian National Coalition opposition political body Anas Abdah called on the international community to ensure the safety of civilians in Wadi Barada.

Oppposition activists say the Syrian regime's claims of rebel fighters polluting water supplies in the area are a pretext to invade the small rebel enclave close to Damascus, despite a ceasefire officially being in place.

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"The Assad regime and its Iranian ally are seeking to force civilians in Wadi Barada to leave their homes through the barbaric bombing and destruction of vital civilian facilities, and imposing a tight siege," said Abdah, speaking on Tuesday.

"It is a strategy that the regime has been using in all liberated areas in Aleppo, Rural Damascus and Homs." 

Abdah is said to have sent letters to over 20 states and a number of international organisations urging them to take urgent action to prevent further bloodshed.

He also called for a Red Cross office to be set up in the valley region, and other besieged areas surrounding the Syrian capital such as East Ghoutta.

In recent months, through a combination of settlement deals and military offences, the Syrian regime supported by Russian air raids and a number of Iranian-backed militias - including Hizballah - have taken control of previously rebel-held enclaves and territories around the Syrian capital. 

Most recently settlement deals have taken place in Khan al-Sheikh and al-Tal, in the Damascus suburbs. 

Other agreements - described as "national reconciliation" by the Syrian regime, and ethnic cleansing by the opposition -have taken place in other provinces of Syria, such as the al-Waer neighbourhood of Homs. Thousands of residents were evacuated from the former rebel-held districts of East Aleppo in recent weeks and transferred to Idlib province.

Pre-ceasefire realities in the valley

In the past week, before the Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire came into place, pro-regime troops engaged in a renewed attacks on rebel positions in Wadi Barada, where an estimated 100,000 people are said to be based.

More than 10 people were killed when more than 60 barrel bombs were dropped on Wadi Barada on 23 December according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with further civilian casualties reported in consequent days before Thursday's ceasefire came into place.

Meanwhile Hizballah has also sustained casualties in regime-led attacks on the area.

On Thursday a UN statement said that water infrastructures in Wadi Barada had been damaged as a result of "deliberate targeting" without saying who was responsible.

Numerous pro-regime media outlets - including the Iranian state owned Arabic language outlet al-Alam - have reported that the Syrian army has presented rebels in Wadi Barada with an ultimatum to surrender the area in return for safe-passage to Idlib. If they fail to respond they will face renewed attacks.

Rebel groups, including Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham, positioned in Wadi Barada - a region that links Damascus with Hizballah's strongholds across the Lebanese border in the Bekaa valley - have previously permitted state water authority engineers to enter the area to maintain the water infrastructure feeding the capital.

However, they have also cut the water supply on a number of occasions previously as a bargaining chip in order to dissuade the Syrian regime from launching full-scale assaults on the area, which has been in rebel hands since 2012.

Translation: Water wars in the heart of the capital, Damascus.

For its part, regime-perpetrated attacks targeting water (and other civilians) infrastructures in areas of the country including in Aleppo have been labelled contraventions of the Geneva Convention.

In order to cope with current water shortages in Damascus a UN source in the Syrian capital who spoke to The New Arab on condition of anonymity said that authorities in Damascus have brought into place an emergency plan to produce around 30 percent of residents' water needs. 

However, the UN source said that as a result of the crisis people were increasingly resorting to buying water privately for household usage, leading prices to skyrocket to more than double their usual cost, adding that the UN had been involved in rehabilitating a number of wells in and around Damascus that now served as "the sole source of water" for the entire city. 

Advocacy groups say that water has been used as a weapon in Syria's civil conflict while the UN says that currently almost 15 million people are in need of water assistance, with households spending as much as 25 percent of their income to meet their daily water needs.

A lack of access to potable water in Syria had previously lead to the spread of health conditions including diarrhoea, scabies, and hepatitis. An outbreak of Typhoid was recorded in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, that has been subjected to devastating regime-imposed sieges during Syria's nearly six-year long civil war.

A lack of access to water and other basic resources has also fueled migration from Syria, and looks set to continue the misery for other civilians in the country.