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Turkish-controlled Syrian region faces water crisis

The drop in the groundwater level and the drying up of some artesian wells have caused a water crisis in the city of al-Bab in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo, and many citizens have been struggling with the high prices of drinking water sold from cisterns.
Syrian women whose families fled from shellings in the southern Idlib and Aleppo countryside carry buckets of water, January 22, 2018.

ALEPPO —  Under control of the Turkish-backed opposition, the city of al-Bab in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo is suffering from drought and an extremely low level of groundwater in most of the artesian wells that feed the city with drinking water. Some of these wells have even completely dried up with the advent of summer and the dramatically high temperatures, portending a humanitarian disaster.

In light of this, activists in al-Bab launched a social media campaign with the slogan “Al-Bab is Thirsty” to highlight the suffering of the city's residents in securing drinking water, and they are demanding solutions to the problem before it turns into a humanitarian disaster. 

Most of the citizens are buying water that comes from cisterns. They have been complaining about the high prices, as most poor families cannot afford it. The price of 2,000 liters of water before the drought amounted to about 12 Turkish Liras ($1.5); it increased to 20 Turkish Liras ($2.5) in light of the current crisis.

Osama Mahmoud al-Naous, spokesperson for the Gathering of the Families of Bab City, a media platform to promote stability in al-Bab, said in a Facebook post on July 1, “The city of al-Bab is an important part of Syria, especially at the present time. It includes large numbers of displaced Syrians who have been forcibly displaced by the regime from their homes. They are our families and brothers and are now going through a difficult stage. The disaster looms on, unless the situation is remedied. Al-Bab is thirsty in every sense of the word, and the crisis is exacerbating. We call on all our Syrian brothers everywhere to participate in our campaign, ‘Al-Bab is Thirsty,’ and we wish for popular mobilization to save the city’s residents. Please work at all levels and translate the suffering and transmit it in all languages on all social media platforms.” 

On June 29, Naous had published a lengthy report on the city's water crisis in several languages and requested its circulation to shed light on people’s suffering. 

Yasser Abdel Latif, a journalist from al-Bab, told Al-Monitor, “In early July, we launched the slogan ‘Al-Bab is Thirsty’ to sound the alarm and send a message to the world that the city is suffering from a scarcity of groundwater and is on the verge of an unprecedented drought crisis if the current situation is not remedied and if alternative plans to secure drinking water are not laid out.”

He added, “The crisis of groundwater scarcity in al-Bab did not emerge overnight but has been simmering since the Syrian regime took control of the Ain al-Bayda water pumping station in the eastern countryside of Aleppo in late 2016. The city would receive its water needs through pipes coming from the Euphrates River. Since the regime put its hand on the pumping station, water has been cut off. The city was making up for the shortage through underground wells in the surrounding area, but the crisis has become catastrophic because the precipitation rate in the winter was very low. Meanwhile, consumption has continued, and the population has increased in the city due to the forced displacement imposed by the regime. During the past years, large numbers of Syrians have flocked to the city from Homs, Damascus, Daraa and other Syrian governorates. The water crisis has thus worsened, with the number of residents exceeding 300,000.”

Ammar Nassar, a civil activist from al-Bab, told Al-Monitor, “At the beginning of 2021, the local council in al-Bab launched a project to draw groundwater from the towns of Susyan and al-Rai in the countryside of Aleppo, but the onset of summer and the significant rise in temperatures have affected the water level in this area. Almost half of the wells have completely dried up. With that, and with the drop in the groundwater level, the local council issued a new decision to reduce the periods of pumping water to residential neighborhoods to once during the week. This move has increased the suffering of the city’s residents, as they had to buy water from cisterns to secure their needs.”

Nassar believes “urgent steps must be taken to alleviate people's suffering in securing drinking water, and a permanent solution to this problem must be found. I believe that the fastest and best solution is to pressure the Syrian regime to open the pumping pipes coming from the Euphrates River to feed the city with drinking water.”

He added, “There is also a possibility to irrigate the city by building a water canal from the Euphrates River on the opposition-controlled bank near Jarablus in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo, or by drawing out water from Turkish lakes and dams in southern Turkey.”

Haitham al-Zain al-Shihabi, head of al-Bab local council, told Al-Monitor, “We informed all concerned parties, international organizations and officials in the Turkish government about the details of the water crisis in the city, and we asked for help. We are now trying as much as possible to alleviate the crisis. There is an artesian well in al-Rai close to al-Bab, and we will draw out water from it to compensate for part of the shortage.”

He noted, “At the beginning of 2021, the local council, in cooperation with humanitarian organizations, dug a number of wells to extract groundwater in al-Rai and Susyan, and the project was already completed. The total amount of water provided from these wells at the beginning of the year was 625 cubic meters per hour, and all the wells were in very good condition. However, during the month of June, a large number of wells went out of service after their groundwater totally dried up, and the abundance of all the remaining wells in Susyan, al-Rai and al-Ghazara has decreased and now only amounts to 222 cubic meters per hour. This is not enough to cover the city’s drinking water needs. The majority of people buy water through cisterns at high prices.”

He added, “We are now considering a project to draw water from the Euphrates River in Jarablus. The project is costly, and we need international support to implement it. We hope it will be implemented if it is technically feasible to radically solve the water crisis in the city. It would also contribute to economic development in the area, because people will benefit from part of the water that will be drawn from the Euphrates River to irrigate agricultural crops.” 

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