THE BLOG
06/17/2016 11:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Challenge in Syria: Water in a Time of War

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Sanjay Wijesekera with baby in Homs City, Syria

As the UNICEF team gathered at a shelter for displaced families on the outskirts of Homs City, in central Syria, a woman hygiene promoter told me: "Despite all the troubles, we can still laugh. We are stronger than this conflict."

That is in a way the defining demonstration of the resilience of the inspiring Syrian people I met on a visit recently.

I sat with Ahlam, a young mother of four, one of over 100 families who live in two neighboring unfinished apartment blocks. They are among about 1,000 displaced families who fled nearby rural Homs, and part of the more than 6 million people inside Syria displaced by the fighting.

Alham was pregnant two years ago when she fled the violence of her village and moved into this dilapidated, rat-infested building. She told me how she used to carry a heavy 20-liter jerrycan of water up the four flights of stairs every day.

Was she complaining? Not at all. She was merely stressing the difference the water tanks and piped water installed by UNICEF have made, and mentioning how the pipelines connecting each apartment to the town sewerage system had bettered all their lives.

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UNICEF team outside apartment block

She suggested some further improvements.

"Catch-up education over the summer for the girls would be good," she told me. Her 8- and 10-year-old daughters had left school behind when they left their village. "And nappies are expensive."

Ahlam's 8-month-old baby crawled towards me, and a neighbor commented: "The babies like to go to the men."

I learnt that, like Ahlam, many of the women here are widows.

Providing safe drinking water and basic sanitation is a priority for UNICEF in Syria. They help prevent disease and save children's lives.

Having water in the home means that children and women do not have to walk miles carrying heavy loads - risking their lives from possible bombs and airstrikes.

And you cannot run schools and health centers without these basic services that not so long ago most Syrians took for granted.

Last year, UNICEF helped provide drinking water to over 10 million Syrians. This went from trucking water; to repairs and maintenance to damaged and degraded water systems; to drilling wells; to providing disinfectant for the water treatment needs of almost the entire country. As a result, Syria did not suffer cholera outbreaks in 2015, when neighboring Iraq did.

But, more than five years into one the world's most damaging conflicts, the obstacles for safe drinking water and sanitation remain.

Fighting prevented us from visiting Aleppo, where UNICEF has its largest water programs, and where water has been used as a weapon of war - as it has in many other places.

Between January and March this year, the main water treatment plant which served the city and surrounding areas from the Euphrates River was deliberately shut down for 48 consecutive days, cutting daily water to 2.5 million people.

Without water, sewerage systems could not function properly. Women and children braved the violence to fetch water from water tankers sent in by UNICEF to keep the city going until a deal was worked out between the warring parties.

This is why UNICEF is helping to develop alternative sources like wells. Diversifying the sources of water helps people become less vulnerable to deliberate attacks on the system.

We visited villages in Al Salamiyeh in rural Hama, struggling with water cuts from a pipeline which runs through contested areas.

In one town a community group told me that without the water assistance from UNICEF, the 22,000 people there would have had to pack up and move. Well water is available but it has a high sulphur content and smells like rotten eggs.

UNICEF provided a reverse osmosis treatment plant to make the water drinkable, and reduce dependence on the vulnerable main pipeline. This is an expensive solution, but where there is not enough, every drop counts.

Back at the Al Zarzouria shelter, a 20-year-old volunteer hygiene promoter told me she was studying to be a teacher. She believes her work with children, engaging them in activities to improve their hygiene habits, has also helped them deal with the traumas they have faced and has improved her nascent teaching skills.

"The seeds that we have planted, we should take care of them till they grow up," said one of her colleagues.

Passion and energy shone in the women's eyes. And they are right. They are planting seeds that are stronger than this conflict.