AMMAN— Northeast Syria is facing an acute water shortage as a result of damage to civilian water infrastructure and the roughly 108,000 Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) who fled the Turkish offensive, “Operation Peace Spring,” early last month.
On October 29, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) warned that the local supply of potable water will soon run out and pleaded with “humanitarian actors, UN agencies and NGOs” to help provide water to the area.
The lack of water is what pushed Xemgin Mamoste Kurdi and his family to flee for the second time in one month, originally displaced by the fighting in Ras al-Ain (known in Kurdish as Serekaniye).
“The battle was getting closer to Tal Tamr and there was a lack of food and water,” Kurdi told Syria Direct. “The whole town had left, so we had to flee. Qamishli is safe and there is water, organizations and people helping here, but it’s not enough.”
Despite water currently being available in Hasakah province, where most of the IDPs are located, the area’s main supplier of water, the Alok water treatment facility, was once again out of service on October 29, according to a member of the Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC), Kamal Derbas.
The Alok facility, which supplies water to approximately 400,000 people, was first put out of service as a result of Turkish shelling in its initial push into the border town of Ras al-Ain, according to the AA’s statement. It was then partially repaired on October 19, bringing it to 20% of its operational capacity, before going back out of service.
In order to make up for the lack of capacity, water has been pumped from local dams, including from the Tishreen dam.
In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) “put in place temporary, emergency solutions [by] tapping into other available water sources, particularly the reactivation of al-Hemma water treatment plant and adapting 8 boreholes for emergency water trucking,” the spokesperson for the ICRC, Ruth Hetherington, told Syria Direct.
As it stands, “the water in the dam will not last for more than a month,” Derbas said. Water that comes from the dam is not potable, Dilbrin Khalil, the regional director of the NGO, “DOZ,” told Syria Direct.
As a result, the KRC is expecting an “outbreak of diarrhea in the near future… taking into consideration the bad hygiene circumstances,” according to a report the group provided Syria Direct on October 29.
Water is currently only pumped to Hasakah city residents once every five days for eight hours, according to Khalil. If residents need more water, they have to hire a private water truck to bring it to them, something which many cannot afford.
Such emergency measures are unsustainable and more expensive over the long term, as NGOs have to rely on private companies to transport water from distant wells to urban centers where IDPs are clustered, Khalil said.
Drinking water is even more scarce, as the arrival of tens of thousands of IDPs to the province puts severe stress on the amount of drinking water available, he added. On November 5, UNICEF reported the price of bottled water has doubled.
“Most of the [humanitarian] organizations contract with private water providers, [or] they distribute drinking water from pre-packaged bottles that are either bought from private companies or are sent from Iraqi Kurdistan,” Khalil said.
Still, even with the water provided by private companies, what is available “still falls far short” of what is needed, according to Qamishli-based Rojava Information Center on October 29.
A SARC team was sent out to repair the Alok pumping station—which is now under the control of Turkish-backed factions—on October 20, with generator parts and technical advice provided by ICRC, according to Hetherington. However, the site visit only partially repaired the water treatment facility, leaving it with a low operating capacity which continued to “impact people’s access to water,” Hetherington said.
Two subsequent SARC missions to repair the Alok station on October 27 and 29 were “aborted due to insecurity on the road,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
As of November 7, “efforts are ongoing” to restore Alok water station, according to Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Najat Rochdi.
Full repair of the facility has been prevented by the Turkish-backed factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA) who control Ras al-Ain “under the excuse that the area is a military area and should be withdrawn from,” Khalil said.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, three SARC engineers who attempted to fix the station were arrested by SNA factions before being released on November 7.
Water treatment plants were also targeted in Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” in Afrin in early 2018. Three water-pumping stations were damaged in the offensive, though they were later repaired.
Basic needs mount as winter approaches
In addition to a lack of water, IDPs find themselves lacking basic goods and shelter in Hasakah province, as most were unable to bring cash or goods with them as they fled.
“We left with nothing but the clothes we were wearing,” Kurdi said. “The financial situation for every [IDP] from Ras al-Ain is not good and we completely depend on the [humanitarian] organizations right now.”
“The people here help but it’s not enough. If the children ask you for something, you’re not able to give it to them. So we have to eat from the food that’s donated to us: pasta, burghul rice, cheese,” Kurdi said.
Local and international humanitarian organizations are working together to address the mounting needs of the displaced, but efforts have been hampered by the flight of the majority of international NGOs after the beginning of “Operation Peace Spring” and the subsequent agreement between the Syrian government and the AA that allows the former to deploy its soldiers along the border with Turkey.
“The efforts of the humanitarian organizations are not enough to be honest. The number of IDPs is huge while the number of organizations is small,” the co-chair of the AA’s Organization for the Coordination of NGOs, Shelan Hashem, told Syria Direct.
According to the same KRC report, there is a lack of basic shelter available to IDPs in Hasakah province. “Due to the lack of tents, [IDPs] are currently sleeping in the toilet and WASH containers,” the report said.
In an effort to assist IDPs, private citizens in Qamishli and Hasakah provinces have taken it upon themselves to organize donation campaigns, donating non-perishable food and blankets which were then distributed to shelters, according to Hashem.
Clothes and blankets donated by residents of Qamishli, 22/10/2019 (Buyer Press)
“Everyone who is able to give has done so,” Hashem said. “Even homemade food made for winter has been distributed between shelters and the IDPs from Ras al-Ain.” Still, there is a shortage of essential goods, such as “sponges, blankets, infant formula, pills and cleaning supplies.”
As the winter rainy season approaches and the temperature plummets, these needs will only become more critical, especially for those IDPs who have limited access to quality shelter.
“Now it’s enough… but in the coming days it might not be,” Kurdi told Syria Direct when asked about the availability of basic supplies for IDPs in Qamishli.
This article reflects minor changes made at 2:58 PM 10/11/2019