Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—“My son is on the phone, he said the water tank is empty. The problem is that water has not been on for three days.” With this statement, Narmeen drew an evening out with her friends to a close—an evening they had planned a week before to enjoy coffee and shisa in one of the cafés in the Damascus suburb of Abu Rummana.
The party broke up, each woman heading home; their plans to snatch a few hours to temporarily escape from a number of problems—electricity blackouts, the difficulty of moving from place to place, constant explosions—frustrated by the eruption of a new one.
These are problems that have become part and parcel of the lives of Syrians for almost four years. One man, who insisted as being identified only as Nizar T, said: “We have become so accustomed to them that we can no longer live without them.” He has to go to bed early each evening in order to wake up at the time when the water is on, and to start up the pump to fill the water tank on the roof of his home. If he stays up late one evening, his family can be out of water the next day. He pointed out that he was never, in his entire life, as committed to going to bed and getting up on time as he is today, amid the water shortage and ever-present electricity blackouts.
As for special occasions, such as Ramadan, Eid, weddings and general festivities, he shook his head, expressing a mixture of sarcasm and regret: “We have forgotten about those for three years,” he said. He mentioned he had heard from a neighbor that their telephone bills were due to arrive, warning: “Be careful when you read it, it may spoil your day.” In response, Nizar says: “Everything that spoils one’s life has come to us.”
In every way, he said, the situation today was the worst it had ever been, and he and his family are struggling to cope with the strange mixture of fear and boredom that is the lot of those on the sidelines of the fighting in a civil war. “This year is the poorest in every way in three years: I barely manage to have breakfast of whatever food is available with the family, and then we each lie down on a sofa quietly as if we are practicing yoga; if a conversation takes place, it is a squabble about sharing out chores, such as watching the water-level in the tank, buying fuel for the generator, buying candles, changing the gas bottle, or paying electricity or Internet bills,” he said.
“Other than that, we fight boredom, and wait, [especially] in the case of electricity blackouts. And when electricity is available, we either watch TV or surf the Internet.”
Riyadh N is a young man planning to get married, but he is hesitant because of fears of added burdens to his life. He said: “We forgot what going out and dining in restaurants was like for years due to the lack of security, especially on special occasions as in Ramadan 2011; we dropped the sweets, meats and snacks. We also forgot about weddings, and the meetings at funerals were cut down to two hours around noon. We started saving what we used to spend on entertainment to help our displaced relatives and friends. Sharing a loaf of bread has become our main concern.”
The next year was just as bad, he said. “In Ramadan 2012, we canceled a variety of dishes due to the very high cost of living, and canceled the dinner invitations to relatives and friends, and we no longer thought about sharing our food and home with our displaced relatives. We had all become needy; we dreamt of travel and migration. This year we added a mandatory list to the banned list, which was forced by the loss of water supply and the electricity blackouts.” In Ramadan 2015, the running joke in Syria today—“Wishing Ramadan would become the same as the Olympics: happen once every four years and without Syria’s participation”—may become a reality.
The stifling water crisis worsened with the arrival of Ramadan. Nadia M said: “The water problem has made us forget about the electricity problem, which we got used to after three years, and learned to find alternatives.”
“We used generators or static batteries whenever needed, and not all of that was for lighting and television,” she said. “The refrigerator became a cupboard for basic foods.”
Nadia considers the water shortage to be a disaster, because it is not possible to find easy alternative sources of supply, especially in high-rise buildings where water barely reaches the fourth or fifth floor. She added that this year had been very tough because of water and electricity shortages, which forced her to buy ready meals, which she did not usually do, and forced her sons to stop using plates and other utensils to avoid the need for washing up.
“We had food at home in candlelight without spoons, knives or forks, as if we were in a wild desert,” she said.
Ready meals represent only a temporary solution because of their high cost, especially in relation to the low income of most Syrians, especially those struggling to feed large families.
Abu Ammar suggested a different solution, one that is even more costly: restaurants. He is relatively well off, but can no longer go to restaurants with his family as in previous years, as it costs on average around 2,000 Syrian pounds (13 US dollars) per person, which means his family of six would need to pay at least 12,000 pounds (78 dollars) per meal. He said he himself was able to visit a restaurant once or twice a month, but no more than that, so instead decided to take his family to a popular café in the Al-Rabwah district in western Damascus twice a week to have tea and coffee and enjoy some fresh air whenever there was an electricity blackout, or as a solution to difficult evenings at home.
Today, the Syrian government faces one of its most difficult problems of the past three years with regard to the water crisis. Although it is not new, and is not a result of the current security situation, the crisis has exacerbated it thanks to the targeting of electricity and water supply lines, which has coincided with the worst drought since 1932. In addition, the omnipresent corruption, inefficiency and absence of proper planning in state institutions has contributed to the terrible state of the country’s infrastructure, and exacerbates the problems in the water, electricity, communication and sanitation sectors.
For example, while the reasons for the lack of electricity and water supplies vary from rationing due to the shortages to the attacks on electricity generators and water pumps, the government announced last Saturday that “generating stations in the southern region have stopped operating because of the shortage in fuel supplies as a result of the disruption by insurgents of the gas supply to the East Jairoud region in Rif Dimashq.”
The Electricity Ministry issued a statement that said: “The stoppage of these stations has increased the rationing of electricity in the southern region, and the Oil and Mineral Resources Ministry is working on resolving the problem.”
The assurances of the Water and Sanitation Department in Damascus and its suburbs, and its announcing of projects to resolve the water crisis, have failed to allay the growing fears of the city’s inhabitants. According to statements from Hussam Haridin, director of the Water and Sanitation Department, the government launched a project in the western region, which would help solve the problem of Rif Dimashq in two stages.
He claimed that completion of the first stage of the project would provide 176 gallons (800 liters) of additional water per second, while the second stage would provide 319 gallons (1,459 liters) per second. “Work is currently ongoing to bring balance between the city and the suburbs within a framework of fairness in the provision of water for everyone in all areas,” Haridin said, adding that “the situation in the suburbs was being monitored professionally.”
Areas under the control of the regime in Rif Dimashq are also experiencing an increase in consumption due to the migration of displaced people from nearby insecure areas, which makes the provision of services increasingly difficult.
In his statement, Haridin tried to reassure people that “the drinking water situation is stable for the next stage.” However, he did not state how the current worsening crisis would be overcome, talking instead about the results of studies related to permanent water resources in the Arab region, and the government’s intention to implement well projects to satisfy the needs caused by population growth until 2040.
“The planned wells would provide water at the rate of [308 gallons] per second, which is enough to provide drinking water for 14 residential communities in Rif Dimashq,” he said, adding that the government had begun drawing water from two wells in the area of Rima in the Hermon mountains, providing 654 cubic yards (500 cubic meters) of water to the villages of Jadidah, Artouz and Sahnaya.
Despite the optimistic words of the director of the Water and Sanitation Department, it seems there will be no solution to the water crisis any time soon. There are areas in Rif Dimashq and the outskirts of the capital that have no water for days at a time; even some districts in the capital have started to suffer the same problem.
Nizar T said he managed to resolve his electricity problems to some extent by sharing electricity and Internet lines with his neighbors, whereby he gives them a line from his house when he has power and they don’t, and vice versa. Switching electricity linkages over keeps him busy throughout the day, but there is nothing he can do about the water problem. “You can buy drinking water, but what about bathing and cooking? It is a disaster,” he said.
Many heavily populated areas in Rif Dimashq—such as Sahnaya, Jurmana and Dimas—have seen a surge in water trade in the past 10 years. However, it is the first time for this to happen in the capital. Although there has been water rationing for more than 14 years in outlying areas such as Abasiyeen, Qaboun, Barza, Hajar Al-Aswad, Qadam and Mazzeh, it has never caused a crisis as stifling as the current one. Previous rationing never exceeded a few hours a day and was compensated for by water tanks, which were filled up by water pumps, which most people used to get water, especially in apartments on the higher floors of buildings. With the problem worsening this year, the water trade has flourished, with 1.3 cubic yards (a cubic meter) of water costing 1,000 pounds (around 170 dollars)—very expensive compared to the official price of water.
Meanwhile, all hope is fading for a swift end to the conflict and ongoing chaos in Syria. Most Syrians have become convinced that the conflict will continue for at least 10 years. As for life going back to what it used to be, they do not expect that to happen for another 50 years.
Nabil D said he no longer worried about when the conflict would end—what concerned him now was day-to-day survival. He said, with a tinge of sadness: “Yesterday, my children and I stole water from our neighbor’s water tank. I had to. I did this in the month of Ramadan, because necessity knows no law. That’s how we justify the lack of morality. Never mind, this is the morality of war.”
Overcoming difficult situations has become the main occupation of most Syrians in areas under the control of the regime, despite the fact that in recent weeks some of the security measures in the capital have been eased. The regime removed a number of barricades in the first week of Ramadan, including those from Mujtahid Street to Kafr Souma Square, where there are major security buildings and government departments, and from Beirut Street near the Ra’ees Bridge to the Umayyad Square, which is one of the most sensitive areas of the city thanks to its proximity to the Officers Club and the headquarters of the General Staff—the target of a large bomb in 2012.
In the Rif Dimashq areas under regime control people have also started to visit public parks once again, and partial traffic movement has returned to some streets in the capital until late at night. The heavily armed soldiers at the checkpoints also appear more relaxed, watching Ramadan TV shows on mobile phones, having WhatsApp conversations with their families and friends, or walking with their girlfriends in parks.
In contrast, some of the country’s millions of displaced citizens lie in the parks and on pavements after a long, hot day, waiting for salvation which does not seem close, constantly repeating a proverb which says: “As hard times took hold, salvation came, and I thought salvation would never come.”