After earthquake damage in northwest Syria, urgent action needed to prevent collapse of water systems and avoid devastating humanitarian consequences

Aleppo’s water system – which is so old that spare parts are no longer available for it – has come under increasing pressure, first from 12 years of conflict and now the earthquake. After losing their homes in the earthquake, more people today are relying on the same system to meet their water needs. Direct damage to essential parts of the infrastructure reduced the system’s efficiency and raised the risk that contaminated water could pollute the supply.

Additionally, many elevated water tanks on the roofs of houses were destroyed by the earthquake, leading to further stress on the system. Parts of the city’s sewage system, which was already heavily damaged during the conflict, collapsed, exacerbating the needs in a region already struggling to cope with the effects of more than a decade of conflict.

“The possibility of devastating public health consequences as a knock-on effect from the earthquake is frighteningly high. A new public health emergency such as the spread of infectious diseases would be a disaster for the region,” said Fabrizio Carboni, Near and Middle East regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria who has been overseeing earthquake response operations.

Access to safe drinking water is a challenge affecting millions of people across Syria. Before 2010, 98% of people in cities and 92% of people in rural communities had reliable access to safe water. Today, only 50% of water and sanitation systems function properly across Syria.

“Communities have pulled together, sharing their food, water and clothes. Nevertheless, the scale and gravity of new needs in the affected region, and across Syria, requires increased assistance. Durable solutions for essential infrastructure are vital to public health. This is especially true for communities that have been harder for humanitarian actors to reach,” Mr. Carboni said.

For these communities, living in areas like Idlib where the living conditions are catastrophic and the needs are massive, the ICRC calls on all parties to the conflict to set aside political considerations and facilitate humanitarian work so that relief is provided to those who need it, regardless of the modality.

Thousands of people sought temporary shelter after the earthquake, leading to difficult living and sanitation conditions in Aleppo, Hama and Lattakia. At one temporary shelter site in Aleppo, 850 people are sharing seven toilets. At another site, in a former cement factory, children play ball close to areas contaminated by unexploded ordnances.

On the morning of the earthquake, ICRC teams delivered kits of medical supplies to Aleppo hospitals only hours after the quake hit. Since then, over 57,000 people in the affected areas have benefited from health assistance from the ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent. They also provided water for people at six shelters in Aleppo and provided relief assistance to over 30,000 people that included food and essential items.

In 2022, the ICRC supported the rehabilitation of 32 water facilities across the country and more than 17 million people across Syria benefited from different water-related interventions. In recent years, the ICRC carried out, along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, thousands of engineering projects tackling water and sanitation systems across Syria aiming to provide sustained support to local service providers to curb the decline in service delivery across the country.

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