Skip to content

The right to water a casualty in the Syrian war

The Syrian war has left nearly 2 million people in the city of Aleppo without drinking water, a clear violation of their human right to water.

The Guardian reports, “Heavy bombardment [by Syrian and Russian air forces] of the rebel-held eastern area of Aleppo has left about 1.75 million people without running water, the United Nations has said. Intense attacks on Friday prevented repairs to the city’s damaged Bab al-Nayrab pumping station, which supplies water to 250,000 people in the eastern parts of the city, according to the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF. In retaliation, the nearby Suleiman al-Halabi station [located in a rebel-held district], which pumps water to 1.5 million people in the [Syrian-regime held area] west of Aleppo, was switched off [by opposition forces], it said.”

UNICEF’s Hanaa Singer says, “Nearly 2 million people in Aleppo are once again with no running water through the public network. Depriving children of water puts them at risk of catastrophic outbreaks of waterborne diseases and adds to the suffering, fear and horror that children in Aleppo live through every day. In the eastern part of Aleppo, the population will have to resort to highly contaminated well water. It is critical for children’s survival that all parties to the conflict stop attacks on water infrastructure, provide access to assess and repair damage to Bab al-Nayrab station, and switch the water back on at the Suleiman al-Halabi station.”

What is the context for all this?

Syria (which has been occupied for most of its history, incorporated into the Ottoman empire in 1516, then under French control following World War I) is a one-party state with an exceptionally poor human rights record (regarded as perhaps the worst human rights record in the world) given freedom of expression, association and assembly are strictly controlled. The government of Bashar al-Assad (who assumed power in 2000 after his father ruled the country for 30 years) has been accused of harassing and imprisoning human rights activists and other critics of the government. Amnesty International says the government may be guilty of crimes against humanity based on “witness accounts of deaths in custody, torture and arbitrary detention,” during the crackdown on the uprising against the government in 2011.

The Independent reports, “Rebels have maintained control of much of Aleppo since they took the city in 2012. Government forces, backed by Russian air support, are engaged in battle with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main opposition group. Regime forces are also aided by Iranian advisers and Lebanese Hezbollah militia.” And it would appear from other media reports that the United States (which has considered Syria to be a state-sponsor of terrorism since 1979) has been trying to broker a deal with the Russians that would establish joint US-Russian operations against “terror groups” and stop the Syrian government from bombing Aleppo.

The situation within Aleppo itself is complicated. The government holds the western part of the city, the rebels the eastern part, and Kurds the northern part. The variety of rebel groups controlling parts of Aleppo are not aligned and include the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (considered to be moderate), the Free Syrian Army (comprised of former Syrian Army soldiers and now not considered a coherent group, but associated with “warlordist” political power arrangements), the (al-Qaeda-affiliated) Jabhat al-Nusra, and the (anarchist anti-Islamic State democratic people’s army) Kurdish People’s Protection Units.

In October 2014, Blue Planet Project founder Maude Barlow said the al-Assad government’s denial of clean water is consistent with its history of using water to punish its enemies and reward its friends. She highlights that in 2000 the Syrian regime gave vast quantities of land and water its wealthy allies, which severely diminished the water table and drove more than one million small farmers and herders off the land, many of them to Aleppo. Climate scientists argue that global warming then very likely exacerbated the historic drought that began in Syria in 2006 further displacing rural people to cities and sparking the initial unrest that led to the start of the uprising in 2011.

The war in Syria, which as a population of about 17 million people, has claimed almost half a million lives, wounded close to 2 million people, caused 4.8 million refugees and has displaced 7 million people within Syria.