Jumana, a displaced child living in the Jab al-Barazi camp outside al-Bab city, brings drinking water to her family, 14/9/2022 (Syrian Civil Defense)
PARIS — Abu Ahmad is locked in a constant struggle to supply water to his house, on the outskirts of al-Bab city in the northern Aleppo countryside. Water pumped through the main line operated by the local council does not reach him. Instead he has to buy and transport water for drinking and irrigation through local tanker trucks.
The water supply in al-Bab is dwindling. Since the start of summer, the al-Bab Local Council—under the opposition Syrian Interim Government (SIG)—cut the number of times water is pumped into the city’s main network multiple times: from twice weekly to once, for only two hours at a time. The pumping pressure is weak, so “water doesn’t reach the neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts,” Abu Ahmad said. Those who, like him, live in the city’s sprawling outer neighborhoods, must find other solutions.
Twice a month, Abu Ahmad spends 90 Turkish lira (TRY) ($4.93) for a tanker truck carrying 10 barrels of drinking water. To save costs, he periodically buys the same amount of “brackish water,” refined sewage that is not suitable for drinking, for TRY 20 ($1.10), which he uses to irrigate the olive trees in his garden. Although the treated wastewater harms crops “and could kill the trees, there are no other solutions,” he told Syria Direct.
For five years, al-Bab city, controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition, has been in a severe water crisis. This year was the worst yet, according to a number of residents and members of the SIG. But residents’ calls for a solution to the crisis have so far not been met by an international or local response to fundamentally address and end it.
Groundwater in the area is “scarce and unstable,” and “directly impacted by climate changes and drought,” said engineer Muhammad Najouma, Director of Operations at Stabilization Support Unit, a civil society organization in northwestern Syria. The area’s deepest groundwater reserves, which are less impacted by drought, are “unfit for drinking or irrigation because it is sulfuric water,” he said.
Dimensions of the crisis
Historically, the source of drinking water for al-Bab city and the nearby towns of al-Bazaa and Qabaseen was the Ain al-Bayda water station 10 kilometers to the south, which today is controlled by the Syrian regime. The regime cut the water supply from Ain al-Bayda to al-Bab city in July 2017, several months after opposition forces retook the area from the Islamic State (IS).
Ain al-Bayda’s water comes from a waterway connected to the al-Khafsa water pumping station on the Euphrates River, which feeds Aleppo city and some of its countryside. Before 2017, water was pumped from Ain al-Bayda to the 10,000-cubic-meter Jabal al-Sheikh Aqil reservoir west of al-Bab, and from there to the city.
“The use of natural resources by the warring forces in Syria, who harness them to achieve their goals,” particularly the Syrian regime, has “aggravated the water crisis in general,” Najouma said.
One of the ways Damascus puts pressure on opposition-held areas is to “cut off water from the liberated areas, and use it as leverage over the population to make them submit to its authority,” he added. Al-Bab’s water infrastructure was also damaged “during the process of liberating it from IS” in early 2017.
Without their main water source, the “economic and social stability” of al-Bab and nearby towns was affected, and “the area entered a humanitarian crisis,” Najouma added.
Searching for alternatives, the local council at first dug “14 wells to draw water from the Susyan and al-Rai areas in the vicinity of al-Bab,” local council member Abdullah al-Darwish told Syria Direct. But soon “these wells dried up—we dug dozens of wells after that, but they work for a month at most, then dry up too.”
Al-Bab currently has “two wells that work well, and four that work for an hour and a half a day, but they don’t meet the needs of the city,” whose population has doubled, he said. Al-Bab is home to 250,000 people, up from 123,000 people before 2010.
The city’s water crisis is not one that will go away with time, unless radical solutions are put forward, al-Darwish said. He warned that the crisis “is at a catastrophic stage,” as the local council’s “estimates indicate that the stock of water in wells is decreasing and the depth [it is found at] is increasing.”
A number of vehicles transporting drinking water gather in al-Bab city, in the northern Aleppo countryside, 18/8/2022 (Malek Abu Obeida)
Abu Muhammad Hatab once grew cucumbers and leafy vegetables on his land north of al-Bab, until 2013. But when IS took control of the city in 2014, he fled with his family to the Idlib countryside, only returning three years later after Turkish-backed opposition factions expelled IS in Operation Euphrates Shield.
As soon as Hatab returned, he started cultivating his land. But he found “it wasn’t feasible–the level of the well was low, and the cost of irrigation through water tankers was high,” as was that of fuel and fertilizers, he told Syria Direct. In 2020, he planted his land with olive and fig trees, which require less irrigation and fertilizer, but they “have a lower financial return than seasonal farming,” he said. Still, “that is better than leaving the land fallow.”
Today, Hatab, like Abu Ahmad, relies on brackish water, transported from Tadef by water trucks, to irrigate the trees on his land.
Agriculture in al-Bab was also adversely impacted when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—which control the city of Manbij and the Euphrates River dam to the south—stopped “pumping water into the agricultural plains irrigation network project north of the city” several years ago, according to Najouma.
Al-Bab’s farmland is parched and receding. Green spaces are “shrinking, and those that remain rely on refined [sewage] water, which contains a high percentage of pollutants but is an alternative for farmers because it is cheap,” al-Darwish said.
For years, the local council’s stopgap solutions—namely digging artesian wells—have failed to address the crisis. The price of buying water from privately owned tankers is up, too, after truckers raised the price twice since the beginning of the summer amid dwindling supply: from 10 barrels for TRY 15 ($0.82) to TRY 40 ($2.19), then again to TRY 90 ($4.93). In response, the local council and local humanitarian organizations are now distributing water through their own tankers to ease residents’ financial burdens, but it “isn’t enough to completely cover the city’s needs,” al-Darwish said.
The local council also equipped “two 400-cubic-meter cisterns inside the city,” Najouma said. The council uses 20-cubic-meter tankers to fill them with water from wells in Sousyan, nine kilometers west of al-Bab, and treats it with chlorine.
Smaller, five-cubic-meter water tankers then deliver the water to homes inside al-Bab, which helps “ensure access to clean, sterilized water at uniform prices and prevents exploitation of the citizens,” the engineer added.
But all the solutions and measures used so far “cover less than 30 percent of the population’s needs,” he said.
The local council is running up against “the high costs of pumping and transporting water, compared with the financial resources it has,” Najouma said. It also cannot implement an “organized and fair [fee] collection system for the population’s use of the water, because of the low income level and inability to measure how much water beneficiaries receive since there are not water meters for everyone,” Najouma said.
Looking for radical solutions
With multiple factors contributing to the al-Bab water crisis, including “exaggerated consumption by the population in a period of drought striking the region,” a radical solution is necessary. One option is “drawing water from Jarablus, north of Aleppo, to al-Bab,” local council member al-Darwish said. Several studies have been conducted that “examined the possibility of implementing this project, but so far there is nothing on the ground.”
Some of the studies submitted to the council “meet the conditions,” according to al-Darwish, but the estimated cost is significant. The project, when first proposed in 2016, was estimated to cost around $35 million. The cost today could be even higher “because of rising prices and the doubling of the population.”
Drawing water from Jarablus would go through five stages, and a set of reservoirs would need to be created for water to be pumped into and then transported. But this means the project’s operational cost is “high” and “in the process of surface pumping, the water networks could be exposed to a terrorist act or bombing by the regime, and therefore stop working or go out of service.”
The Jarablus project “is the most expensive solution, but it gives great productivity and would solve the water crisis sustainably and effectively,” Najouma said. It would also “provide water to the al-Ghandoura and Qabaseen areas for agriculture.”
Al-Darwish said there are other projects “under study” by Turkey, which is responsible for services in the SNA-controlled northern Aleppo countryside. “They have a project under preparation that we have not officially looked at yet,” he said.
For its part, the SIG has prepared “a study to draw Euphrates River water to Azaz, and branch off to the al-Bab region for an estimated cost of 33 million euros, provided the water is suitable for drinking and agriculture,” Najouma said. This plan has been submitted “to a number of international parties to obtain funding.
But one fundamental solution would be to find a way “to go back to pumping water from the Ain al-Bayda station, in coordination with the Red Crescent or through diplomatic parties that are able to influence the Syrian regime,” Najouma said. “This is the most appropriate and best solution.”
Until any one of these projects gets underway, “the crisis of providing water to the population of al-Bab continues to escalate,” he added. “It will impact the agricultural and economic sectors, and lead to a deterioration of the humanitarian situation,” impacting “the stability of the region as a whole.”
“Concerted local and international efforts” are what is required, he said, “to support sustainable solutions.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.