Syria’s Idlib province is is suffering from a water crisis. Most  of the province’ water networks and pumping stations are no longer operational either because they were damaged in air raids or because there is no longer the fuel required to run them. The lack of water has forced residents to seek out alternative methods of getting waters. One alternative that has become widespread is digging wells for groundwater and transporting the water via tankers, but this has in turn created health problems because the water is not always clean, in addition to the costs associated with extracting and transporting the water.

The cost of getting water

Abu Ahmad, the head of a family of eight, lives in the southern Idlib countryside, where it costs him 10,000 SP ($46.50) a month to cover his water needs.

“Every month, I need two tankers worth of water. One tanker, which is 40 barrels of water, costs 5,000 SP ($23.25) , and this is a great burden on me. I work as a farmer, and my financial means have been severely impacted given the circumstances, but there is no life without water. We have to get it,’ said Abu Ahmad.

A tanker driver from southern Idlib, Mahmoud al-Ibrahim, explained to the Syrian Voice the reasons behind the rising costs of water.

“The nearest source of water to our village is 14 kilometers away. There is also the cost of water at the source, which sometimes as much as 1,300 SP ($6.00) for one tank. This in turn depends on the cost of the diesel needed to extract the water and the distance it has to be transported,” explained al-Ibrahim.

He added that with the profit margin for the tank workers, which is only 1,000 SP, the price for the consumer comes out to 5,000 SP.

Sources of water

Before the uprising in 2011, Idlib’s water distribution system relied on pumping stations–also reffered to as projects– set up at the various springs in the region. These included the Al-Laj project, Ayn al-Zarqi, as well as the springs al-Adousiya and al-Hamboushiya, in addition to others. In the south of the province, the source of water was usually groundwater wells.

This system covered about 90% of the province, but with the breakout of the conflict, that number has dropped to 50%.

This drop occurred despite a number of projects implemented by civil society organizations, including the Local Councils, according to Bassam Razouq, the director of WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) programming in Idlib for the NGO Ihsan for Relief and Development.

“A number of towns and villages relied upon big pumping stations for water. For example: the Al-Laj project, which provided water for about 35 towns throughout Jabal al-Zawaiya and the Kafr Nabel area. It stopped operating at the beginning of 2015 when the Zeitoun power station, which powered it, stopped operating because of nearby fighting in the Sahel al-Ghab area. There also wasn’t enough money to keep the pumps operating using generators, leaving these towns without water, and forcing people to get water via tanker.” Abd al-Majed al-Abdou, the director of projects and studies in the Idlib Provincial Council.

However, al-Abdou complained that aid from international organizations working on water in the area had not been “fair.”

Securing water, a daily need

The situation in southern Idlib is different from other areas where pumping stations were established and are currently supplying residents with water, like a project in Kafr Nabel. However, other towns have not been able to operate pumping stations given high operating costs that the they can’t afford, even after setting up informal systems to collect the necessary funds.

As a result, towns turned to digging the ground wells in attempt to mitigate the financial burden on them.

Securing water for residents is one of the priorities of the Idlib Provincial Council, said al-Abdou.

“We are trying to get water and are communicating with aid organizations that could help outfit pumping stations and wells or the support to help operate them,” he said.

Some humanitarian aid organizations like Relief International have contributed in dealing with the water issue in parts of Idlib by providing free water tankers to residents. However, this tactic  was not a silver bullet.

“These tankers were given to internally displaced in these areas, not to all of the residents, and they stopped being provided about three months due to the organizations’ own considerations” according to an individual who used to work on Relief International’s water projects.

Water that is pumped directly after it is extracted could be tainted with microbes and germs when it isn’t treated, an issue that some aid groups, including Relief International, are working on by distributing water “Aquatab” water purification tablets–each of which can treat 20 liters of water–to local homes.

Samer Bakour, one of the Relief International coordinators for the program told the Syrian Voice that “there was a second phase, in which the organization provided chlorine powder to the Local Councils, so that the towns represented by them could purify the water in the wells, in addition to organizing trainings for these councils on how to use the powder, but there was no authority that was responsible for overseeing the water’s potability; the only oversight came from aid organizations implementing projects.”

Local initiatives to dig wells in southern Idlib, a possible solution:

Kafr Ayoud, with a population of about 10,000, is one of the villages in southern Idlib that finds itself with no source of water after the al-Laj pumping station ceased operating. When that happened, the town’s Local Council began planning to make a well, but the council is still trying to figure out how to pay for even a primitive one. As it is, they are relying on a local initiative to raise the necessary funds, according to Ala al-Dadou, the head of the council.

Al-Dado said that “because the town residents don’t have the means to buy water, we spoke with a number of organizations to get their help in digging a well for the village. The response was that because of internal considerations, they don’t dig the wells themselves, but can help outfit the wells after they are dug. So we began speaking with people from the town who had emigrated to raise money for the project, on top of a local initiative to raise the roughly $25,000 needed.

Potential risks of ground water wells

In many cases, numerous towns that used to share one source of water now each have their own well. This is the case of the Karsa’a project in southern Idlib, which used to provide water for seven villages. Since the pump stopped working,  each of the seven towns has begun using its own well. This poses a risk to the future levels of the water table according to water, according the director of the water authority in Idlib. Despite the risks, many locals in southern Idlib see these local initiatives as successes.

When humanitarian aid organizations have outfitted a well after it has been dug, it does indeed reduce the financial burden on the residents of that town or village, especially in compared to towns that don’t have their own source and must continue to bring in water from far away via tanker, as is the case in Mawzra, Ayn al-Aroz. Basams, and other villages in the Jabal al-Zawiya region.

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