Water shortages resulting in displacement and misery inside Syria
By Noosheen Mogadam and Thomas Whitworth, Norwegian Refugee Council
A number of academics and analysts consider water scarcity a major catalyst for the Syrian crisis. Research papers examining Syria’s economy, including Chatham House’s publication in June 2015, as well as REACH’s September 2015 thematic report, find that a prolonged drought lasting for more than five years resulted in a significant reduction in agricultural production, unemployment and migration. An estimated 1.5 million individuals moved from rural to urban areas in search of employment opportunities, including to the centres of the initial uprising in March 2011.
As the Syrian war enters its sixth year, water security continues to deteriorate for many civilians. While the consequences of the drought are still endured, evidence shows that control over power and water infrastructure is used as a weapon of warring parties, contrary to international law. For example, in August 2015, deliberate water cuts affected up to two million people in Aleppo. Damascus has also been affected. The Wadi Barada provides a significant amount of water to DamascusCity but supply networks that pass through opposition-held enclaves have been periodically closed. It was not until January 2016 that an agreement was reached between local leaders and the government to inter alia allow water flows in exchange for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Such agreements must be respected, though access to such resources are basic human rights, not to be bargained over for political or strategic gain.
Whilst conflict and protection concerns are the primary drivers for the current displacement trends, a lack of access to essential services such as water is cited as a major reason amongst both Syrian refugees and internally displaced people within Syria for fleeing their communities.
This displacement places yet another burden on the often already stretched capacity of host community services. A combination of damaged infrastructure, a lack of maintenance, manipulation and limited power-supply has resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in access to safe water relative to pre-crisis levels. According to the 2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview, this has forced an estimated 69 per cent of people inside Syria to rely on unregulated and often expensive sources of water for drinking, domestic use and personal hygiene.
NRC’s interviews with beneficiaries further confirm that safe access to water is a key priority. The lack of water is directly responsible for reduced dignity for both displaced and host populations many desperate and willing to make significant life decisions based on the availability of supply.
In some areas of Syria daily struggles are faced related to water, triggering protection concerns. Increased rates of waterborne and skin diseases are documented with lack of adequate medical services. In desperate situations, family members, including children, must go to water standpipes and other water collection points sometimes traversing long distances and waiting in queues to bring water containers back to their homes, often at risk of attack from warring parties. Women and children needing to use latrines which are sometimes communal facilities are left vulnerable to attack and abuse, especially after dark.
Attempts have been made to address the many challenges faced by civilians in Syria in exercising their right to water through both responsible emergency humanitarian assistance and longerterm programming. These interventions include water trucking, the provision of household-level water treatment and storage assistance, repairing water-supply systems and working with authorities to improve the provision of safe water. NRC simultaneously advocates for better tracking of damages to water infrastructure across the country, information to civilians about the location of safe water sources and collective reporting of water consumption patterns through humanitarian coordination mechanisms.
The December 2015 UN Security Council Resolution calling for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria, if respected, may mean that water facilities and infrastructure inside Syria can be rebuilt and protected. Wider issues, however, need also be addressed, such as better water management systems, and respect for international conventions related to water sharing by countries neighbouring Syria. Water
Source : Jägerskog, Swain et. al. 2016. Water, migration and how they are interlinked. Working paper 27. SIWI, Stockholm