Syria and neighbouring countries: Water shortages add to woes

Throughout the Middle East, people are suffering from water shortages. The rising violence of the past few years and record-low rainfall have made clean water increasingly difficult to come by – especially in Syria, where the shortfall in precipitation last winter is expected to hit many people very hard.


North-east Jordanian-Syrian border. ICRC transit site for Syrian refugees at Hadalat. / CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/O. Abu Rumman

"Wheat, which is primarily grown in rain-fed areas in the north-eastern part of Syria, is expected to produce a record-low yield this year," said Michael Talhami, water and habitat programmes coordinator at the ICRC. "This means that Syria will become even more reliant on imported food, and will therefore be acutely vulnerable to any spike in world food prices, which would exacerbate the difficulties many people already face as they try to obtain food at a price they can afford."

Millions of people have been displaced by fighting to shelters where no clean water is available. With power outages common in all parts of Syria and water networks suffering damage, the challenge now is to transfer the limited water supplies still available to high-population areas.

For Syrians who are still farming despite the ongoing conflict, the low yield and hence reduced income, combined with the high price of the food they have to buy when they don't produce enough even for themselves, are making it increasingly difficult for them to eke out a living. Automatic stabilizers that were in place prior to the conflict, involving subsidized fertilizer and seed for producers and subsidized food for consumers, are now mostly unavailable.

"Working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent water and sanitation specialists and with local water boards, we are improving access to clean water for millions of people all over Syria," said Mr Talhami.

"Much of the region depends on aging infrastructure that requires considerable maintenance," he added. "In Jordan, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, the demand for water both from residents and from the refugees who have arrived over the years has been growing significantly. In addition, there has been an increase in the cost of water, which in turn has caused an increase in the cost of food. In border areas, the ICRC is endeavouring to provide drinking water, sanitation, shelter and other basic necessities for Syrian refugees."

Although Lebanon's water supplies are relatively abundant, after several years of low rainfall it has become a challenge even there to maintain water quality and availability. There are Syrian refugees in all parts of the country. The ICRC, working in coordination with local water boards, has been upgrading pumping stations and water networks to boost supplies and meet needs wherever they may arise.

Because of the influx of refugees into Lebanon and Jordan and displacement within Syria, the local authorities have had to supply fresh water and provide wastewater treatment for growing numbers of people. The ICRC intends to expand its activities to respond to these needs.


Al Karnak camp in Tartous has around 1,500 people who were displaced from Aleppo. The ICRC provided fresh drinking water assistance as well as the rehabilitation of the latrines. / CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/W.Zoubaidi

The ICRC has worked closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and local water boards to provide, within the last month:

  • six tanker trucks that brought water to more than 100,000 people in Homs, Rural Damascus and Deir Ezzor;
  • financial support enabling a rubbish collection truck to operate in Idlib city, thereby providing more sanitary living conditions for 100,000 people;
  • upgrades to eight centres housing displaced people, bringing clean water, proper sanitation and decent housing to over 9,400 people in Rural Damascus and Dara'a;
  • supplies needed to treat water from Al Figeh Spring, the main source of water for around four million people living in Damascus city and the surrounding areas;
  • general maintenance and emergency repairs required to maintain the availability of safe water for more than a million people in Rural Damascus and Deir Ezzor;
  • mechanical and electrical spare parts for 15 submersible pumps to increase the capacity of various water stations in Hassakeh governorate, such as Ras Al Ain, Al Malekia, Al Jawadiah and Qamishly, which together serve more than 800,000 people.


Bustana, North-east Jordanian-Syrian Border. Syrian kids enjoying clean water after the ICRC installed a wash basin at several posts along Jordan’s north-eastern border. / CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/A. Wagnieres

To help the Jordan Armed Forces cope with the growing influx of refugees across the country's eastern border, the ICRC has, since the beginning of 2013:

  • equipped six transit facilities in the border areas so that 1,200 Syrian refugees per day can be hosted in suitable conditions;
  • provided in the eastern border area 50 shelter caravans, 20 sanitation caravans, 90 rubbish bins, seven generators, 46 tents, 10 solar water boilers, 13 drinking-water coolers, 12 large washbasins, 14 water pumps and 41 water tanks;
  • provided in Raba’a Al Sarhan Registration Facility in Mafraq governorate three sanitation caravans, seven drinking-water coolers, fivewater tanks and 10 rubbish bins;
  • provided in Manshiyat Al-Alyan camp for Syrian defectors in Mafraq governorate six sanitation caravans, 10 drinking-water coolers; nine water tanks, 10 rubbish bins, 13 large washbasins, six solar water boilers and two water pumps;
  • made available 18,000 litres of potable water daily at Manshiyat Al-Alyan camp through a Jordanian contractor.


Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, one of the areas of Lebanon hardest hit by the water shortage. / CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/N.Ismail  

Between May and December 2013, the ICRC completed eight projects in the country involving the supply of pumps and generators, upgrades to pumping stations, etc., which benefited some 220,000 people, residents and refugees alike.

So far this year, projects already under way or about to begin in Zahle, Chamsine, Abu Halka, Hebberiye, Hasbaya and Kfeir are benefiting over a quarter million people. Further projects under study in Aarsal, Flawi, Laboue, Sour and Chebaa could benefit as many as 270,000 people. The ICRC has also provided support for the renovation of a hospital in Ain El Helwe damaged in armed clashes. Field assessments and discussions with municipal authorities have begun with a view to launching new water projects for refugee and host communities in areas with a large refugee population.


Centre for the displaced in the Khanaqin area. Water distribution point installed by the ICRC. / CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/S. Dabbakeh

 Iraq's armed conflict has now spread from Anbar to other parts of the country, leaving thousands dead and over 800,000 displaced. In addition, Iraq is hosting many thousands of people who have fled the conflict in Syria.
The Iraqi water infrastructure is affected due to the fighting, and the huge number of displaced persons. The government has measures in place to deal with the water situation, but shortages of electricity, fuel, chemicals and spare parts could reduce capacity still further.
The ICRC is working in the provinces of Anbar, Babil, Diyala, Kirkuk, Missan, Nineveh and Salah al-Din, where we have:

  • built or renovated 10 water supply systems;
  • carried out 15 emergency repairs on water supply systems;
  • installed water tanks and delivered water at seven centres and two camps for displaced people;
  • repaired a primary health care centre damaged during clashes in Ramadi (Anbar);
  • run three training sessions for 45 technicians at water treatment plants in southern Iraq;
  • repaired two irrigation canals in Kirkuk and Babil, benefitting 24,700 people.

Overall, the ICRC has improved access to safe water for 372,000 displaced people and others across Iraq, reducing the risk of disease. 

 *            *           *

 The Middle East water crisis and the Syria conflict

The ICRC's water and habitat coordinator for North Africa and the Middle East explains the effect of the regional water crisis on the conflict in Syria.