Continuing and sporadic water shortages are making hygiene precautions next to impossible in north-east Syria while millions face coronavirus risk amid continued fighting, destroyed infrastructure and lack of critical basic services. Only one of the 16 hospitals in the region is fully functioning, and more than half of all public health centres are out of service.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a statement 21 May on humanitarian conditions in the region, warning that “There’s a risk that profound crises will worsen, hidden in plain sight, while the world’s attention is on coronavirus".
"The international community, humanitarian actors and donors must respond to the pandemic without losing sight of chronic conflict-related needs in places like Syria’s north-east,” said Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC’s regional director for Near and Middle East.
For the sixth time since October, actions apparently by Turkey and Sunni rebel allies cut water service from the Allouk (Alok) pumping station 7 May. Water authorities sent out an alert asking households to manage water consumption but such action will hamper efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in the region at risk. Supply was subsequently resumed but only at about 40 percent capacity.
The Allouk facility supplies potable water to more than 460,000 people in Al-Hasakeh, Syria, including hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians and Islamic State captives. It is estimated that about half are infants and children, who are living in under-resourced camps and detention centres.
As reported in Al-Monitor, “The autonomous administration accuses Turkey of weaponizing water as a means of forcing it to supply electricity to the 1,100 square kilometers (680 square miles) of territory in northeast Syria currently under Turkish occupation at the expense of people who would receive less power daily as a result. More broadly, Turkey is seeking to stifle the Kurdish-dominated autonomous administration through a cocktail of political, economic and military pressure.”
Water supply stoppages in the region are a regular occurrence. “Access to safe water in the context of protection efforts from the coronavirus disease is even more essential and lifesaving than it already is. Hand-washing and good hygiene practices are our first line of protection from COVID-19. The repeated interruption of water supply for children and families who depend on the [Alok] water station for safe water puts them in unacceptable risk,” said UNICEF Syria representative Fran Equiza in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.
Other NGOs have likened Turkey’s actions to war crimes. “It's very clear that we have a very serious problem with parties weaponizing water and humanitarian aid in northeast Syria and risking a COVID response,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch.
The Turkish Defence Ministry has denied Turkey's role in obstructing and cutting water supplies to areas in northern Syria, blaming Kurdish militias and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continue to support the region by carrying out urgent repairs to critical water infrastructure, distributing food and daily hot meals, and supporting health care services in communities and in camps.
Between March and May the SARC and ICRD reported continued water shortages in Hassekeh, Deir Ezzor, and Raqqa governorates. There has been a huge need to support water authorities, carry out urgent repairs, provide necessary equipment for water treatment, and supply camps with clean water.
In Deir Ezzor, destruction has extended to the water supply system, with most water treatment plants, stations, and networks out of service.