In 2012, the Syrian regime encircled the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. With it came an end to municipal services. Who collects the garbage? Fixes the burst water pipe? Provides a steady source of electricity? A group of residents with experience in the field stepped in to fill the gap.

Formed in 2013, the United Service Office (USO) now consists of 200 employees including engineers and technicians. The USO works with local councils in East Ghouta to provide water, sewage, electricity and sanitation services despite years of blockade and bombardment.

USO members rely on materials brought in via “roads hidden from regime checkpoints, or smuggling tunnels” to repair sewage systems and lay water pipes in East Ghouta, the group’s director Bassam Zeitoun tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.

USO workers perform sewer maintenance in East Ghouta this month. Photo courtesy of United Services Office in East Ghouta.

Here, Zeitoun, an electrical engineer who worked at Damascus University for 13 years prior to the Syrian revolution, describes an ambitious water infrastructure project the USO is implementing in several East Ghouta towns, and his organization’s efforts to break free of reliance on foreign funding by collecting money from local residents.

“We aim to spread a culture of collaboration between residents and the organizations…in order to reduce reliance on external aid.”

Q: Regime forces blockaded East Ghouta in 2012 and frequently bombard the suburbs. How are you able to work and provide services under these circumstances?

We bring materials in with severe difficulty, using roads hidden from regime checkpoints or else smuggling tunnels. There are also some shops that still have goods.

The blockade has really impacted the speed of our work. We work on projects that are possible, or of the utmost necessity, not comprehensive plans for the future.

Q: Has the “cessation of hostilities” that went into effect in late February allowed you to expand your work?

The pace of the bombing has decreased considerably, with the exclusion of some of the fronts [ex. Marj], and the occasional shell.

The truce hasn’t led to an increase in the number of projects we’re working on. Any new project requires study and funding, so it takes three to four months to get started. Of course, with more security and no bombardment we aim to work on a larger scale and focus more on the quality of the service.

When there was bombardment, our work was interrupted and delayed, plans had to be changed constantly and we couldn’t focus on precision.  There was a feeling of fear and pointlessness, a sense of “what’s the use, tomorrow the bombing will ruin the work again.”

Now we’ve been working faster on our current projects. There’s also a greater sense of calm while working, and it’s reflected positively on projects requiring precision.

Q: How was the USO founded and who are those who work in it?

The USO was founded in 2013. The idea arose from the difficult situation in the area due to a lack of talent and experience after the rebels took control and the regime withdrew most services and imposed a siege.

The goal was to find solutions to the service problems that arose with the encirclement, to move experience around to the different local councils and to carry out projects with the cooperation of different towns.

There are 200 employees who receive a salary from the USO, including five engineers, five university students and graduates of technical and trade schools. I myself am an electrical engineer. I graduated from and worked with Damascus University for 13 years before the revolution.

Q: Why have you started collecting money from residents, and where does it go?

It is a new experience that we are implementing in coordination with local councils in East Ghouta towns. First, we provide services for a given time period to convince the beneficiaries that we can do it. When we gain citizens’ trust, we start collecting fees. 

Collecting money is very important to ensure the continuity of our projects and the services we provide. We’ve done this to reduce our total dependence on external support, and to ensure our longevity. We aim to finance our own work without needing anybody else.

Q: You said the goal of collecting money is to free the USO from reliance on external funding. Who funds you?

More than one organization supports us. The biggest funder is Democracy Council [a US-based grant distributor], which has financed the sanitation project for the past two years. The [USAID] Syrian Regional Program supports development and small projects. There is also the Assistance Coordination Unit [belonging to the National Coalition opposition-in-exile].

The cost of our projects (sanitation, water pumps, well-digging, sewer maintenance, pesticide spraying, constructing a water turbine to generate electricity) in 2014 and 2015 was around $950,000.

Q: How much are you asking people to contribute? What about poor residents who are not able to pay this amount? Will they still be able to access services?

Working with the local council in each town, we have determined the monthly fees to be collected: SP600 (approx. $3.18) per month per family. Keep in mind that the cost for [similar services] in the private sector is around SP1,000-2,000 (approx. $5.30-$10.60) a month.

Those who can’t pay the requested sum can present a request to their local council explaining their situation and have the fee waived. The local council will study the situations of families in the most severe poverty and exempt them.

The aim of this project isn’t just to collect money. We aim to spread a culture of collaboration between residents and the organizations providing services in order to secure the continuity of those services and reduce reliance on external aid.

Our goal is not for residents to cover all of the costs, but to cover part of them. As our work develops and the economic situation of the population improves, we may be able to slightly increase the sum collected in order to improve and continue the service.

Q: What projects are you working on right now that the money goes to? Where is this work happening?

The first step is a water project, but we hope to expand and for these funds to cover the costs of other general services (sanitation, sewage, electricity and generators). So far, the towns included are Jisreen, Saqba, Hamouriyeh and Kafr Batna.

We began a water project in Jisreen in January, [laying pipes, digging wells, installing water pumps] and the following month finished the process of testing and starting up the water network. After we confirmed that water reached 80 percent of Jisreen residents, we began to collect money from them.

In Saqba, we have finished repairing the existing water system, and are now in the stage of testing the water pumps and repairing damage. Water pumping is set to officially begin next week, and then we will begin collecting fees.

News of the water project in Jisreen spread quickly. We’ve been getting requests from other towns not yet included (Arbin, Misraba, Ain Turma), saying they are prepared to collect the necessary sums if we provide their towns with water. We are currently studying the project’s expansion.

Q: When new projects are carried out, will the fees go up?

There will be a gradual increase. There are already many families who pay SP1,000 each week in exchange for three hours of electricity from the private sector [provided by large, privately-owned generators]. Some towns also collect donations and fees from local businesses to cover the costs of their local council. What we are trying to do is collect money according to a well-defined and thought-out system.