Days before Christmas, Damascus went dry due to an aerial attack on the Ain al-Fijah spring 18km north-west of the Syrian capital, which feeds the Barada river that supplies 70% of the water for the city and its environs.
It was initially reported by pro-regime websites on December 22nd that the rebels who have held Wadi Barada since mid-2012 had deliberately polluted the waters of Ain al- Fijah, which forced the authorities to cut off the water supply.
The sabotage story was used as a pretext to launch a major ground offensive against militants at the spring to seize control of the water supply despite a nationwide ceasefire proclaimed on December 30th.
Hours later, the armed opposition in Wadi Barada produced a video on social media networks, showing heavy damage to the water infrastructure at the spring, clearly caused by exploding missiles.
They explained that damage on that scale could only be caused by air attacks — and the only planes operating over the Damascus countryside were Russian and Syrian.
The regime had attacked the spring, they claimed, to force the rebels to surrender, which they did not.
This fell in line with similar tactics used by the regime since 2011 in a continuing battle for resources that has become a central aspect of the nearly 6-year-old Syrian war, all part of its starve or surrender strategy in which it imposes sieges on rebel-held towns and cities.
The water crisis spread panic and anger among the war-swollen population of about 9 million people in Damascus and its surrounding countryside.
This is by far the worst humanitarian disaster to befall the Syrian capital in recent years, given that the ancient city has been relatively immune to the violence that has swept the country.
Even when the war began in March 2011, when the greater Damascus population was closer to 5 million, water was scarce. Now the populace has reached critical mass because of the huge numbers of refugees and displaced people from all over the war-wrecked country who have thronged the capital seeking safety and succour.
Private water vendors are selling water at black market prices of 2,500 Syrian pounds — $5 a barrel — a crippling price because the average Damascus household consumes about 100-150 barrels of water per month, for drinking, washing and sanitation. Water costs ordinary Syrians $500-$750 a month, devastating for a city in which a senior post in the public sector, which employs millions of Syrians, pays no more than $150 monthly.
The nationwide ceasefire declared by Turkey and Russia prevented regime forces from marching on Wadi Barada. The armed opposition tried negotiating a deal with government troops, saying that they would allow technicians to enter the Barada valley to repair the damage if the regime stopped bombarding the Damascus countryside.
On January 9th, this deal went into effect but it may be temporary. The regime insists on retaking Wadi Barada, regardless of the ceasefire, claiming that the estimated 1,500 fighters there are members of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria, which, along with the Islamic State (ISIS), was the only rebel group excluded from the ceasefire.
Despite the agreement, the crisis is far from over as it will take time and money to repair the damaged pumps, signalling difficult times ahead for the people of Damascus.
Similar crises are emerging elsewhere in Syria, with equally disastrous outcomes and with jihadist forces employing the grim and brutal tactics of the regime.
The Euphrates Dam, 40km upstream from Raqqa, de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate, was built by the Soviets in the 1970s. It has been held by the jihadists for two years.
ISIS recently shut down a major water flow into the battered city of Aleppo, a significant battlefield since mid-2016, from the Euphrates — an old tactic used by Zionist militias that blew up the main water pipelines to the port city of Haifa before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
If Kurdish forces get too close to the Euphrates Dam, ISIS has threatened to destroy the huge structure. That would flood the entire region and inundate the nearby town of Tabqa to add to Syria’s already massive human catastrophe.
In neighbouring Iraq, the same applies in Mosul, where the caliphate was proclaimed in June 2014. US-backed Iraqi state forces are battling to retake the city from ISIS and red flags are already high about the fate of a 3.4km-long dam 60km north of Mosul on the Tigris river.
Built on unsuitable foundations as a prestige project by Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s, the dam has required regular repair and maintenance, something ISIS failed to provide for two years.
If the dam collapses, up to 11.11 billion cubic metres of water, known as Lake Dahuk, will submerge Mosul and lay waste to all the downstream towns and cities, shattering the lives of up to 7 million people.
Arab Weekly, 15 January 2017