Damascus water shortage threatens children, U.N. says

GENEVA (Reuters) - Children are at risk of waterborne diseases in Syria’s capital Damascus where 5.5 million people have had little or no running water for two weeks, the United Nations said on Friday.

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“There is a major concern about the risk of waterborne diseases among children,” UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said.

The two main water sources for the capital - Wadi Barada and Ain-el-Fijah - are out of action because of “deliberate targeting”, the U.N. said on Dec. 29, although it has declined to say which of the warring sides was responsible.

The Syrian army and Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces have bombed and shelled rebel-held villages in the Wadi Barada valley, despite a nationwide ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey.

Although some neighborhoods can get up to two hours of water every three or four days, many people have turned to buying water from unregulated vendors, with no guarantee of quality and at more than twice the regular price.

Jan Egeland, the humanitarian adviser to the U.N. Syria envoy, said on Thursday that denying people water or deliberately sabotaging water supplies was a war crime.

He said damage to the water facilities as very bad and major repairs would be needed. But a U.N. request to send repair teams faces “a whole web of obstacles” including approvals from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the local governor’s office and security committee, and the two warring sides, Egeland said.

He did not say who was blocking access.

World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said that the repairs would take at least four days, probably longer.

Boulierac said children in Damascus were bearing the brunt of collecting water for their families.

“A UNICEF team that visited Damascus yesterday said that most children they met walk at least half an hour to the nearest mosque or public water point to collect water. It takes children up to two hours waiting in line to fetch water amid freezing temperatures.”

UNICEF has provided generators to pump water and is delivering 15,000 liters of fuel daily to supply up to 3.5 million people with 200,000 cubic meters drinking water per day.

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Dominic Evans