Meet Maher. Maher is in Syria and for almost two years he has led UNICEF’s water, sanitation and hygiene work in Aleppo. The lives of millions of people in Aleppo and beyond depend on him and his team.
This week, we sat down with Maher and asked him what it’s like to work in Aleppo and to provide water and sanitation in a city under fire.
What is it like working in Aleppo?
The word I would use to describe Aleppo is “alive”. Throughout history, it has always been crowded and full of life. For many in this city, the different sieges, battles or dangers of war have not kept them locked up at home. Even when there is no water or no electricity.
But over the last week, things have changed. You can tell that people have become even more frightened.
Even today, on my way to the office, I noticed how few cars were on the road. There is supposed to be a 48-hour ceasefire, it has been called for, but people are too scared to go out. There are no guarantees.
It is heart-wrenching for me to see the streets of our beloved city so empty, and to see images of our city in news headlines around the world. We all see the images of children who have been killed or wounded, of buildings left in ruins, and the places we know so well in our own city – destroyed. We hear it too. We hear the sounds of shells and we cannot forget the horrors that we have seen.
I am scared sometimes too. I am so tired of the situation we find ourselves in. I am worried about my family – about their safety and our future.
But then I think of the children in the streets who stand in line with their jerry cans to collect water. I remember the position that I am in, and the purpose of my role here. I will do whatever I can to support the children of Aleppo. Without water, they cannot survive. My job is clear.
What are some of the challenges you face in providing water and sanitation?
Most of the water in Aleppo comes from the Euphrates River and is pumped in through four pipelines from a plant that is now controlled by one of the armed groups. In Aleppo city, the water is re-pumped through three pumping stations. One is controlled by the Government, two by different armed groups. So already, different parts of the city’s water system are controlled by different parties.
Since the war began in Syria, water has been used many times as a weapon in Aleppo. Sometimes the water is shut off at the source directly, sometimes attacks affect the infrastructure, and sometimes our staff and partners are prevented from staying and maintaining the water services. Last year alone around five million people’s lives across Syria were put at risk.
When water is cut to the city, two million people are at risk of outbreaks of waterborne diseases. These diseases can be deadly, especially for children.
Our team works in a number of ways to manage water needs in Aleppo. We respond to emergencies like we have today by developing a full water system – we truck water into makeshift camps and vulnerable neighborhoods, and we have installed water tanks in more organized shelters for families displaced by the fighting. We have developed 70 wells so far, and plan for 30 more, and we installed 28 water treatment plants on the Queiq River to ensure alternative water sources when crisis hits. And we deliver fuel for generators to keep water pumping stations operating when the electricity system is down.
In the eastern part of the city, before access was cut in July, we were trucking emergency water daily for 20,000 people. With our partner the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, we also started a project to develop 25 new wells to build alternative water sources. We are ready to start emergency trucking again as soon as we can get access, and re-start the wells project so that people can have safe access to clean water. We also need to resume rehabilitation of the water infrastructure.
We urge all parties in the conflict to neutralize water – everybody needs safe drinking water to live.
I am Syrian, and for me, there are certain risks involved in providing these services. But we just want to keep the water flowing. There are real threats, and they are daily. But our UNICEF security team is excellent, which makes us feel safer – and we know the work we are doing is right.
Supporting people in need is the most important job – it is a mission I accepted when I took this job. I will continue to use all my efforts to make sure we can get the technicians, water trucks, and all the other humanitarian assistance we can to ensure the children and families of Aleppo can have access to clean water.
What has made you happy in your job?
In June 2015 when I was overseeing water trucking in a shelter for displaced families in the al-Hamdanya neighbourhood, I noticed a little boy around nine or ten years old watching me. I was talking to other people in the shelter at the time to figure best way to help them, as it was my role to monitor the water trucking. I could tell the boy wanted to talk to me, but he was very shy. I finally caught his eye and I waved him over to me.
He looked so happy to be noticed and told me his name was Amer. When I asked him why he was watching me, he said, “I know your name.” I was surprised, and then I was touched by what he said:
“I know you installed those tanks and that you are providing water for us. I see your vehicles every time you visit our shelter. Before you came here we had no water and I had to stand in line for hours and walk such a long distance under the sun to fetch water to my family. Now I have more time to play with my friends. I want to bring water to people when I get older.”
Maher continues to work with the team in Aleppo, providing water every day to those who need it. Two weeks ago, water from the city’s network was cut for two million people when fighting damaged the electrical system that powers water pumping stations.
Maher with the UNICEF team and partners scaled up their emergency water trucking in parts of Aleppo and began delivering emergency drinking water to around 325,000 people every day. UNICEF is delivering fuel to over 70 UNICEF-equipped wells, providing clean water for 450,000 people. And we are delivering day-to-day emergency fuel supplies to power generators for city pumping stations, so water can reach 1.2 million people across the city through the main networks. But these are day-to-day emergency solutions. And they are not nearly enough. Getting the city’s main water network up and running is the only way to provide sustained, safe drinking water to 2 million people across the city.
While urgent negotiations continue trying to secure safe access for electrical technicians to repair the damaged transmission station, Maher and the UNICEF team are working with partners to keep emergency water flowing for the children and families of Aleppo. In total, UNICEF and partners provide safe drinking water for 13 million Syrians, across the country.
Read more about UNICEF’s WASH programme in Syria
Maher Ghafari joined UNICEF in 2013 as a water, sanitation and hygiene facilitator in Aleppo, his home city. When Syria’s crisis began in 2011, Maher worked as a water and sanitation officer with an NGO in the city. He met his future wife in this job. Before the crisis, Maher worked for a decade in construction, on high rise building projects in countries in the Gulf region. Maher graduated in civil engineering from Aleppo University.