Just weeks before global leaders gather at COP26 to make commitments to tackling the climate crisis, families in the region are already feeling its effects, having been left without farmland, income, food and water, and being exposed to hunger, malnutrition and waterborne diseases. Save the Children is calling on urgent increased humanitarian funding as well as prioritising water scarcity in plans to tackle climate change.
The aid organisation said there have recently been very low levels of water in the Euphrates river, relied upon by people in both Syria and Iraq, as it flows into Syria. People in Iraq also rely on other rivers such as the Tigris and Diyala, which have dried up due to extreme heat and low rainfall over recent years.
Compounding this is the regular interruption and long shutdowns of the Alouk water station in North East Syria, a critical water source for millions of people. While the water station is currently active, since January 2021, the station has seen 89 days of no pumping whatsoever, and 142 days functioning below half of its usual capacity. This left some areas of Hasakeh – one of Syria’s largest cities – without access to piped water for two months and humanitarian agencies scrambling to use already limited resources to meet the needs of the city’s residents.
Yousef* lives in a village in Hasakeh’s countryside with his eight children. He said that due to the drought, there is a shortage of drinking water and there are also no wheat crops so they cannot bake bread. His family is also only getting electricity for three to four hours per day.
He said: “Before, at least we had what we needed; wheat for baking bread for our children. Now, we cannot water our lands any more, there is no rainfall. Our weather has changed completely. Drinking water has decreased. Employment rates are low. There are no jobs. This is what makes us suffer the most.”
The regular interruptions to Alouk have also limited water accessibility for thousands of people in camps in Syria’s North East, including Areesha, Al-Tala’e and Al Hol.
Jihane*, 37, lives in Al Hol with her husband and three children, having been displaced five years ago as a result of the conflict in Syria. She said that the ongoing lack of drinking water in the camp is affecting her children’s health. Her six-year-old daughter Zaina* got sick, she said, and the doctor put it down to drinking poor quality water.
Jihane said: "When I took her to the hospital there were more than 10 to 12 cases suffering from the same symptoms. Everyone was saying this is because of the water. There was a boy there whose situation was critical.
"There is no water if I want to bathe my children – I only clean them with a wet towel. Sometimes I wash only one item of clothing for each of them. Sometimes I cannot wash the dishes for two days."
Since April 2021, there have been over 56,000 recorded cases of acute diarrhoea in North East Syria and over 17,000 cases of leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease. While these diseases are more common in Syria’s hot summer months, the outbreaks in 2021 have been much higher because clean water for drinking and washing has been so limited.
Jihane added that her children lack access to water at their schools, putting their education at risk.
Last month a Save the Children report highlighted climate change as one of the biggest risk factors to education globally, pointing towards the 50 million children who are displaced due to climate change as well as the immediate physical destruction to schools and educational facilities posed by extreme weather.
Sonia Khush, Director of Save the Children’s Syria Response Office said:
“Water is a fundamental need, and yet for millions of people in North East Syria, who are also experiencing the impact of almost 11 years of conflict, economic crisis and high rates of COVID-19, it is becoming a luxury. For children like Zaina and thousands more, this crisis is undermining their health, food security and education. We urgently need more funding to respond to this crisis, to prioritise water, sanitation and hygiene and ensure that children have enough food to eat in the months ahead. We also desperately need to see more efforts to address and offset the impacts of water scarcity and climate change.”
People in Iraq are also suffering, Save the Children said. Rahma*, 13, lives in Baquba, Iraq, with her mother, her two brothers and her stepsister. Baquba is a city on the Diyala River, which has dried up significantly over the past year. More than five water stations have stopped working in Diyala governorate, leaving thousands with no access to water.
Rahma said: " The area where we live right now is in crisis and we only get water once or twice a week. Often when we come back from playing outside, there’s no water to wash ourselves with.
‘In July, it was extremely hot, and there was no water. We used to grow plants to eat, but now we cannot farm. We’ve gone from eating three meals a day to just two."
As agriculture is Iraq’s second contributor to national GDP after oil, 23% of people interviewed in Diyala by Save the Children reported sending their children to work out of desperation. Half of those interviewed also indicated that if the crisis continues, they will have to leave their homes and find somewhere with water. Fears of displacement are contributing to the deterioration of children’s mental health, the organisation said.
Save the Children also found that the reduction in the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, as well as mismanagement and untreated wastewater dumping, is fuelling a health emergency across Iraq.
Contaminated water is causing water-borne diseases, which are affecting mainly children and causing diarrhoea and other inflammatory diseases. Families' reliance on alternative water sources such as unprotected water wells, with high sulphates and salinity, have affected health conditions.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is reported to be the most water-scarce region in the world with 11 of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the region.[i] Nearly nine out of 10 children in the region live in areas of high or extremely high water stress, with serious consequences on their health, nutrition, cognitive development and future livelihoods, according to UNICEF[ii].
Just two months ago, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, warned that by late June, nearly half of the drinking-water stations along the Euphrates river were ‘significantly or severely impacted by critically low water levels,’ and more than five million people rely for drinking water and electricity, as does infrastructure such as hospitals and irrigation networks.
Ishtiaq Mannan, Country Director of Save the Children Iraq, said:
“The water crisis in Iraq shows us that for so many of the world’s children, the climate crisis is already here. And the knock-on impacts, from hunger, to displacement, to health, are many. Nearly a quarter of people are forced to send their children to work. This is a crisis that is creeping into every corner of children’s lives. As well as an urgent increase in humanitarian support to respond to what’s currently happening, we desperately need to see leaders factor water scarcity into their decision-making on climate change.”
In northern Syria, Save the Children has so far reached over 800,000 people with emergency water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) assistance since the start of the pandemic, including rehabilitating 18 communal water systems, distributing hygiene kits and promoting hygiene in North East Syria.
In Iraq, Save the Children’s has recently launched a project aiming to reach over 300,000 people to increase their resilience in adopting to water scarcity through building capacity of local actors and strengthening of water systems.
*name has been changed
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[i] Hofste R, Reig P and Schleifer, L, 17 Countries, Home to One-Quarter of the World’s Population, Face Extremely High Water Stress, World
Resources Institute (WRI, 2019)
[ii] “Running Dry”: unprecedented scale and impact of water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa (unicef.org)