Filthy Drinking Water in Deir al-Zour Brings Syria Reconstruction Challenges into Sharp Relief

In the eastern desert province of Deir al-Zour, residents drink contaminated water straight from the Euphrates River and lack treatment options when they fall ill.

Reconstruction looms large as Syria’s civil war winds down. Who will foot the bill to rehabilitate the national economy that has suffered an estimated loss of $388 billion over the past eight years?

The need to rebuild essential services is pressing across the entire country, but more acute in areas that have witnessed heavy fighting, or were underdeveloped because of government policies before the start of the war. The eastern desert province of Deir al-Zour is a prime example. Long neglected by Damascus, Deir al-Zour suffered immense infrastructural damage as ISIS took over in 2014, and again when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recaptured the region in 2017–18. Today, many residents lack access to the most basic municipal services.

Navanti researchers visited several villages in the eastern, and western Deir al-Zour countryside earlier this year to survey people’s living conditions. They found that residents are falling ill from drinking contaminated water, and struggle to find medical facilities to treat severe, potentially fatal illnesses.

Drinking Straight from the Euphrates

Most water pumping stations in rural Deir al-Zour are off-line. Some water lines were damaged by continuous fighting, while residents redirected other lines to irrigate their fields. In addition, ISIS stole generators used for powering the stations, local officials told Navanti researchers.

Locals of rural Deir al-Zour get their water directly from the Euphrates. Tanker trucks distribute barrels of river-water to households at the low price of 100 SYP ($.19) for single barrel, which works out to roughly 1 SYP ($.002) for two liters.

But people also dump their sewage into the Euphrates due to a lack of sanitation infrastructure. This has led to the spread of diseases like Typhoid, Brucellosis (“Mediterranean fever”), and less severe conditions like diarrhea among those who drink untreated river water.

To avoid the contaminated water supply, some residents have opened private treatment facilities.

The price for treated water can be up to 20 times higher than that of its untreated equivalent.

As a result, purified water remains out of reach for many, leading to the spread of diseases noted above. And those who do get sick are faced with an acute lack of treatment options.

Medical Crisis Compounds the Damage

Navanti researchers report that there are no Syrian government, Autonomous Administration, or NGO-operated health clinics in the areas they visited. Instead, residents rely on the services of private clinics.

Treatment is costly and many cannot afford it, chief among them people displaced from other areas of Syria, who come to rural Deir al-Zour to escape life in IDP camps or to find work.

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It is unclear who will take responsibility for rehabilitating rural Deir al-Zour, first of all by fixing the area’s water grid, medical facilities, and sanitation. In the meantime, residents will continue to design ad hoc solutions as private businesses fill the service provision void.