Damascus residents plagued by water shortage for nearly 2 weeks

Residents of Damascus are scrambling for clean water after the government attacked rebels holding the city's main source in a nearby valley, leading to an outage that has stretched on for nearly two weeks.

Rebels and government forces blame each other for shutdown of city's water processing facility

A still image from video provided by Step News Agency, a Syrian opposition media outlet, shows smoke rising from the government forces shelling on Wadi Barada, northwest of Damascus, Syria. Water supplies to Damascus have been largely cut off for nearly two weeks because of fighting between pro-government forces and rebels for control of the main tributary. (Step News Agency via Associated Press)

Residents of Damascus are scrambling for clean water after the government attacked rebels holding the city's main source in a nearby valley, leading to an outage that has stretched on for nearly two weeks.

The cut-off is a major challenge to the government's effort throughout the nearly six-year-old civil war to keep the capital as insulated as possible from the effects of the conflict tearing apart much of the country.

"I have stopped cleaning the house, washing dishes or clothes. We no longer take showers," said Mona Maqssoud, a 50-year-old resident of Damascus. She said residents have relied on water tankers that come by occasionally and give 20 litres of water to each house, but that hasn't been enough.

"We begged the drivers [to return] to our neighbourhood, but they refused."

I have stopped cleaning the house, washing dishes or clothes.- Mona Maqssoud, Damascus resident 

The cut-off, since Dec. 22, is the longest Damascus has seen, say residents, who are accustomed to intermittent outages.

The opposition has long controlled Wadi Barada, the valley northwest of Damascus through which the river of the same name flows to the capital. The Barada River and its source, the Ain al-Fijeh spring, supply 70 per cent of the water for Damascus and its environs.

This image from video provided by Yomyat Kzefeh Hawen Fi Dimashq (Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus), a Damascus-based media outlet, shows Syrian residents filling up buckets with spring water from a pipe on the side of the road in Damascus. (Yomyat Kzefeh Hawen Fi Dimashq via Associated Press)

The government and the opposition had previously had an understanding to keep water services running. But that ended when forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, the Lebanon Hezbollah guerrilla force, attacked the valley, home to some 100,000 people.

Both sides pointing fingers

The two sides blame each other for the cut-off.

An activist-run media collective in the Barada Valley said government and Russian aircraft had bombed the Ain el-Fijeh water processing facility, puncturing its fuel depots and contaminating the water stream. The collective said the plant's electrical control systems had been destroyed as well. Images showed the roof of the facility collapsed into its main water basin. An activist with the group, Abu Mohammed al-Bardawi, said it would take at least two months to get the facilities working again.

Damascus officials said they were forced to shut off the water after opposition forces poured gasoline into the river. The government denied attacking the water processing facility, saying it would not set out to harm its own population. Still, it would not be the first time it struck its own facilities: government strikes hit pumping stations in the northern city of Aleppo in April, September and November.

An image from video provided by the Wadi Barada, a Syrian opposition media outlet, shows the damaged Ain el-Fijeh water processing facility that supplies the capital city. (Wadi Barada via Associated Press)

Damascus spared worst of the war

The battle for resources has always been an undercurrent to the war. The government, in particular, has advertised its efforts to keep electricity and water flowing to areas under its control, while it reportedly blocks the UN and other relief agencies from supplying opposition zones.

But rarely has that struggle been so starkly felt inside the capital.

A boy drinks water from a pipe in the town of Douma on June 23, 2016. The battle for resources has always been an undercurrent of Syria's civil war. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

Damascus, the seat of Assad's power, has been spared from the widespread destruction in other parts of the country, though rebels on the outskirts occasionally fire mortar rounds into the city. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have flocked to the capital seeking its relative security, swelling its population to four million from two million, according to the UN.

For its residents, the water cuts are a gruelling reminder of the war beyond.

Soaring prices for private water

"If this goes on, I will rent a room at a hotel just to take a shower," said a 60-year-old woman carrying a pair of buckets back to her apartment on the sixth-floor of a walk-up building. Like many others in the capital, she was filling her basins from distribution points at a parks and mosques. The local press is reporting soaring prices for unregulated private water.

Residents are making adjustments to cope. Some are now flushing their toilets with bottled water. Others are dining on disposable tableware as an alternative to doing the dishes.

Ground wells around Damascus, even at maximum capacity, can only cover about a third of the minimum water demand of around 600,000 cubic metres a day, according to UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma.

The agency has rehabilitated some 200 wells around the capital since 2011, partially insuring the government against the effects of its own Barada Valley campaign. This year, UNICEF funded $50 million in water projects in Syria.

The Barada Valley is surrounded by all sides by the Syrian army and Hezbollah forces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.

Pro-government forces have kept up their assault with airstrikes, artillery and infantry pushes, despite a Russia and Turkey-brokered ceasefire that went into effect Friday.

The government and the Observatory say fighters loyal to al-Qaeda are present in the valley, and the militants are not included in the ceasefire. Local residents say there are no al-Qaeda fighters in the valley.

"Most of the food depots have now been struck and burned," said al-Bardawi. "They are striking the schools we are using for shelters."