W ater is a precious commodity, especially in times of war. In late December, the UN announced that four million people in Damascus had gone without safe drinking water for over a week because springs supplying the capital were “deliberately targeted and damaged”. No mention was made of who was responsible for the situation.
The government and rebels both pointed the finger at each other. Rebels said airstrikes had damaged a water pumping station, while the government accused the rebels of having polluted the water with diesel.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokeswoman Krista Armstrong told The World Weekly ongoing fighting meant “repair teams have so far not been able to reach and repair the Barada pipeline”. Since last week, the ICRC has provided water pumps, generators and water tanker trucks to Damascus to ease the crisis.
Images showed residents queueing up to fill empty containers. Prices for a barrel of drinking water jumped to SYP3000 (~$6) in some areas, though the situation varied across the capital, a pro-opposition news outlet reported earlier in the week. One resident told Reuters in late December that bottled water prices had more than doubled in the open market.
The water supply relies mainly on two springs called Barada and Fijeh, both north of the city. Rebels have held the fort over Wadi Barada valley, which also sits on a key supply line for the powerful Hezbollah group backing President Bashar al-Assad, since 2012.
Although armed opposition groups were in the past able to leverage their control over the springs to ward off regime advances - at various points temporarily cutting the water supply to the Damascus basin - pro-government troops have now made advances in the area, as well as conducting airstrikes. Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria who is now teaching at Yale University, recently told TWW that after recapturing Aleppo the government would focus military operations on areas around the capital.
All this happened amidst a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia. The truce, backed by the UN Security Council on New Year’s Eve, led to a reduction in violence, but clashes have persisted in some areas, including Wadi Barada. The government has argued that the area is not covered by the agreement due to the presence of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a group formerly linked with al-Qaeda. Rebels, however, have denied its presence.
The fighting near Damascus led 10 rebel groups to suspend their participation in both the ceasefire and discussions about peace talks to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, citing major violations by the government.