Razan is a 30-year-old accountant lives with her mother in the Syrian city of Salamiyah. Racha Chamoun reports on how Oxfam is working to improve access to water for people like her.
“My life is based around the need to get water. Sometimes I skip work or stay up all night, turning the domestic water pump on and off, just waiting for water to come out of the tap.”
Before the war, Razan took a bath whenever she wanted, but now with the water shortage Razan takes a bath only once a week.
Like most women, she cares about her appearance. Twice weekly, she washes her short hair using water heated in a small teapot. She rinses it, bent over another pot to collect every splash. The rinsing water will be used to flush the toilet later.
Likewise the laundry water is collected from the washing machine’s drainage pipe after a spin and stored in buckets for house cleaning. No precious drop is wasted.
“I’ve become obsessed with getting enough water,’ says Razan. And when I use some I always think ‘does that leave enough for my family?’ I can’t be selfish.”
Before the war the population of Salamiyah in Hama governorate was 150,000 people. Now it has swelled to three times the size as displaced people from Homs and Hama suburbs have moved in, placing more stress on water resources.
Apart from a few local boreholes, 400 metres underground containing undrinkable sulphurous water, the nearest water source is 80 kilometres (50 miles) away on the Syrian-Lebanese border and it’s partially damaged due to the conflict. Pumping the water from so far away during war is risky, and electricity power cuts mean the pumping system often does not work.
In 2010, water reached houses in Salamiyah every three days at midnight for three hours. These days, the taps only come on once every 10 days. Occasionally, the taps don’t work for months. The city’s small gardens, once filled by householders with flowers, fruits and vegetables have turned barren as inhabitants keep the small amount of water for personal use.
Like others, Razan is suffering from the financial burden of having to buy water from trucks in an unstable market with inflated prices. One thousand litres used to cost 400 Syrian pounds (£1.35). The same amount is now 1,200 Syrian pounds (£4) and will only supply a family for few days.
Finally, Oxfam in consultation with the Water Establishment in Hama and the community in Salamiyah, realised the only solution was to treat the water in the local boreholes to make it drinkable by removing the sulphur, a process requiring technology and skills. This is what Oxfam committed to providing with a water treatment plant using a reverse osmosis system.
It was a risky and complicated project demanding that expertise and equipment be brought into the city, which meant overcoming huge logistical and security challenges.
But last month, on 2 June, safe water from the plant reached the people of Salamiyah for the first time, benefiting an estimated 35,000 residents.
The reverse osmosis system successfully removes the sulphur, its bad smell, and solids from the water. It produces 50,000 litres of water an hour and is connected to the city’s water mains. The plant was built and is operated by Syrian engineers and technicians, supported by local contractors and the Water Establishment in Hama.
The Oxfam team successfully operated the system for the first time and performed the first water quality test to ensure that the water quality met the standards.
It is a real achievement. And while the war continues in Syria, the electricity supply remains erratic and water scarce due to the large number of people living in the city, at least Razan, and others like her, have better access to a clean and reliable water source.