Being responsible for UNICEF’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme in the Middle East and North Africa region, I’ve served in many countries affected by conflict. These include Syria, Pakistan and Iraq and prolonged stints in countries like Yemen.
I will never forget my time in beautiful Syria – a country very close to my heart – nor my memories of Aleppo, or how we were able to ease some of the heavy burden on children of fetching water.
During the infamous water cut-off in Aleppo, that started in August 2015 and lasted nearly a year, I spent about a month there spearheading UNICEF’s response. We were doing great work there and provided safe water for an estimated 1.5 million people.
On the night of 14 August at 10 pm, as children were collecting water from a water point in Sa’a Square, opposite the Aleppo Governorate Building, a mortar shell landed. It claimed the lives of 12 children. Why did that happen? There is nothing in the world that can justify such a horrific loss of life, nor an attack on vital water infrastructure. It appears that water had itself become a deadly weapon. I burst into tears when I found out about the incident. It was a life changing experience. We immediately changed our water supply strategy to protect children and prevent them from collecting water on the streets.
During our first attempt at pumping water into the system, I was in New Aleppo District. I looked around and saw people from the community at their balconies, praying for this project to be successful. Looking up, I saw people who reminded me of my daughters, mother and grandmother. They are everyday people, just like the rest of us. That’s when a young girl around 10 years old approached me to thank me. Her name was Zizi. She said: “you speak like my father,” referring to my Egyptian accent. That’s when I realized we were fellow countrymen. Zizi was very outspoken – just like my daughters. We took several pictures which I shared with my family.
I visited the 1070 housing complex in Aleppo several times. I remember the sight of children carrying jerry cans filled with water, not being able to walk with their backs straight. They would start with a full jerry can and continue to spill the water as they made their way up to the fifth story, ultimately reaching their apartments with virtually nothing left. I won’t forget the sight of those children who ended up with serious back injuries that may have resulted in permanent deformations.
Among the many people I met was a lady around the age of my mother. She was collecting water with two jerry cans in hand and heading to her apartment on the fifth floor. I asked myself: why does she have to put up with that? How is she capable of carrying this load? I simply started shedding tears. I immediately asked for her permission to help. I carried both jerry cans for her and she walked me to her apartment. When we finally reached her home, I was out of breath, hardly able to move my hands, and my back hurt. How did she endure that several times a day?!
During a cross-line mission to southern Syria, I met with local communities. Following lengthy discussions, I understood that they had not had access to power or drinking water in four years. When inquired about their drinking water supply, they showed me an odd steel structure that I’d never seen before. This thing turned out to be a locally manufactured hand-pump. A little child who wanted to be courteous started operating it to offer me a drink of water. Upon drinking it, I realized I was drinking nitrate — nitrite and ammonia. The pump was extracting highly contaminated water containing sewage and agricultural drainage.
I spent over a month in Yemen in 2017 during the infamous cholera/acute watery diarrhoea outbreak. One day, in the fish market in Sana’a, I visited several households to better understand people’s behaviors and means of accessing water. As I left the area, I saw a very old lady sitting on her porch. I approached her and inquired about her health and wellbeing. She responded: “we lost our livelihoods, we lost family and now water is causing diseases. I’m waiting for death.” I was astounded but could do nothing at that moment. I tapped her on the shoulder, kiss her forehead and prayed for her.
I can go on forever with my stories from Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Sadly, these conflicts still go on, and children are still suffering from a lack of clean, safe drinking water. Despite these challenges, we do not give up. We continue working day and night to help as many people as we can.
Last year alone UNICEF reached 35 million people with emergency drinking water. In Syria, UNICEF provides 3 million people with emergency access to water, while also repairing the larger water network to restore the flow of water to around 15 million. In Yemen, our teams are reaching around 6 million people with access to clean drinking water and providing about 3.5 million people in cholera affected areas with house-hold water treatment.
Omar El Hattab is Regional Advisor for UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Programme in Middle East and North Africa.