Water Security for Refugees

water-scarcity-refugees-syriaSince the outset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, refugee populations in the Middle East and North Africa have ballooned. Half of Syria has been uprooted. More than 5.2 million Syrians have fled their home. Escaping from war torn land, refugees seek shelter in neighbouring countries like  Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Camp shelters for refugees remain a far cry peace, where lack of work, water, and sanitation create prison-like conditions. “The world is failing to meet the needs of the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era,” declares U.N. High Commissioner Antonio Guterres.

Refugee families are constantly scrounging for enough money to buy deliveries of water, and often walk many kilometers each day in search of the resource. For the many families living in encampments access to clean water and methods for proper hygiene are scarce.

In some instances as many as 70 people share a single toilet in refugee camps meant for fleeing Syrians. Lacking access to fresh water in in these pseudo-prisons, unnecessarily threatens the lives of the people sheltered there. Dire amounts of fresh water, sanitation, and the feeling of imprisonment within the camps has become so bad that some Syrians would rather return to Syria and face death there, than die in a camp.  In lands already feeling the pressure of the global water crisis, measures can, and must be taken to ease this resource burden.

Water is More Important than Food

It is a simple fact that the body can survive without food for weeks, and only days or hours without water. Stresses over water in the Middle East are not new, and being exacerbated. In the summer of 2013, Jordanians took to the streets protesting the government’s inability to provide people with fresh water. Now, more than 600,000 refugees have fled to Jordan, intensifying the complex regional issue.

At the Za’atan refugee camp in Northern Jordan, water is delivered on trucks once every ten days. Often that water does not last for more than a few of those days. Using trucks for water delivery is expensive, time consuming, and will eventually have to stop. The severe consequences stemming from a lack of fresh water are described well by a United Nations report:

“Reduction in the quantity of water available…directly affects [individuals’] health… The reduction is reflected in increased incidence of parasitical, fungal and other skin diseases, eye infections, diarrhoeal diseases and the often fatal dehydration associated with them. Even those individuals who may have traditionally lived on less than the normally recommended amount of water (e.g. nomads), will require more in a refugee community because of crowding and other environmental factors.”

What started as a cluster of tents has evolved in to the ninth largest city in Jordan, with a population of 81,000. USAID reports simple water harvesting techniques have helped empower rural families to take control of their water security. However, water shortages remain a growing problem in Jordan. Solutions do exist, and have been outlined in a recent report from Mercy Corps.

Governance Solutions

Water scarcity often stems from lack of economic resources rather than the lack of water itself. Oxfam Syria Crisis Policy Leader, Daniel Gorevan, suggests that, “Providing resources not just to refugees, but to local government infrastructure projects will benefit everyone. Where much of the burden could be relieved by reparations to old pipes on leaking equipment, which are depleting half the available drinking water

Immediate solutions exist in camps, for governments and for nongovernmental organizations. Refugees themselves must do their best to conserve water. The United Nations Water Manual for Refugee Situations details methods for quality and water transport. Such as using composting toilets, rather than toilets with water. Managers, and people facilitating refugee encampments must follow some general guidelines: do not let individuals draw from the source with containers, for this may cause contamination. Additionally, test all water for its physical, bacteriological and chemical characteristics before use.

Refugees themselves must do their best to conserve water.

Refugees themselves must do their best to conserve water.

Mercy Corps 2014 report, “Tapped out: Water scarcity and refugee pressures in Jordan,” proposes its own three pillar solution to the water crisis.

Pillar one: Invest in long-term development. Such as renovating old water supply infrastructure and investing in better farming practices that use drip irrigation.

Pillar two: Bridge the governance gap. Build local government capacity, decentralize the responsibility for water distribution, and align funding conditions with cross regional utilities.

Pillar three: Address conflict and conservation. Amplify the voices of women whose role in water use is significant, collect better water data, and embed conflict mitigation into regional development.

Time for Action

Beyond having a need for better governance, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the region are working to ease the lives of those who are suffering. These NGOs need support from people like you and I, in order to carry out their work. Naming just a few of these groups are: EcoPeace Middle East, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR),  Centre for Affordable Water and Technology (CAWT), CARE, and others are taking action to support water and sanitation efforts.  You can visit www.WaterForTheAges.org to get a list of more than eighty groups actively involved in the refugee water crisis.

Sources of Information

Aois, P. (2007) “Global Water Crisis Overview,” Arlington Institute, http://www.arlingtoninstitute.org/wbp/global-water-crisis/441

Dakkak, A. (2016) “Water woes in Jordan,” EcoMENA. http://www.ecomena.org/water-jordan

Barbash, F. (2014) “UN: Nearly half of Syria’s population uprooted by civil war,” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/29/u-n-nearly-half-of-syrias-population-uprooted-by-civil-war/

Degan, G. (2012) “Jordan: Using water wisely and keeping clean in Za’atan refugee camp,” ACTED, http://www.acted.org/fr/node/5863

Mercy Corps, (2014) “Tapped Out: Water scarcity and refugee pressures in Jordan,” http://d2zyf8ayvg1369.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/MercyCorps_TappedOut_JordanWaterReport_March204.pdf

Murdock, H. (2014) “Water shortages in Lebanon devastate Syrian refugees,” VOA News, http://www.voanews.com/a/water-shortages-lebanon-syrian-refugees/2571595.html

Proctor, K. (2014) “Refugee Crisis draining Jordan’s water resources,” Atlantic Council, MENA source, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/refugee-crisis-draining-jordan-s-water-resources

Sarah, A.A. (2013), “First Person: Five Things I Learned in Syrian Refugee Camps,” National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/09/130920-syria-refugees-camps-war-children/

Seametrics Blog (2012), “5 countries most threatened by water shortages,” http://www.seametrics.com/blog/5-countries-most-threatened-by-water-shortages/

Sullivan, Kathy. Water from a Stone: Jordanians Stretch Meager Resources to Sustain Syrian Refugees. USAID, Frontons, July/August 2013 online edition https://www.usaid.gov/news-information/frontlines/aid-action-delivering-results/water-stone-jordanians-stretch-meager

Stone, Jon. 9/1/16. Syrian refugee crisis: How different countries have responded. Independent News

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/syrian-refugee-crisis-how-different-countries-have-responded-france-lebanon-uk-a7220616.html

United Nations. Water Manual for Refugee Situations.  Program and Technical Support Section, Geneva. 1992.  http://postconflict.unep.ch/liberia/displacement/documents/UNHCR_Water_Manual_Refugee_Situations.pdf

UNICEF. February 2013. Running dry: Water and sanitation crisis threatens Syrian children. http://www.unicef.org/mena/Syria_Crisis_WASH-Syria-Feb-2013-En.pdf .

The Telegraph. 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/jordan/11782854/Inside-the-largest-Syrian-refugee-camp-Zaatari-camp-three-years-on.html .

Water for the Ages, “International H2O Organizations,” https://waterfortheages.org/international-water-organizations/

Lydia Anne Scherr

Lydia Scherr is German-American graduate student at Columbia University. She is studying Climate and Society at Columbia’s Graduate College of Arts and Sciences. Her discipline is a mixture of climate science, economics and social sciences. Lydia studied communication, and forensic debate as undergraduate. She is currently working as a web developer, and dreams of helping create a sustainable future wherein the techno-sphere and biosphere are harmoniously combined.

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