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Syria's Aleppo gets taste of peace but thirsts for water
By Karam al-Masri and Maher al-Mounes
Aleppo, Syria (AFP) March 1, 2016

A landmark ceasefire has lifted the burden of daily rocket attacks and bomb blasts in Syria's second city Aleppo -- but not its residents' profound thirst.

Citizens on both sides of the fault line dividing Aleppo between regime and rebel forces are suffering from their longest water shortage yet in the nearly five-year war.

"The general situation in the city has improved with this truce," Abu Nidal, 60, told AFP in the eastern rebel-held al-Maghayir neighbourhood of Aleppo.

"Everything is available to us -- except water."

The clashes tearing Aleppo apart since 2012 have damaged power generators and pumps that bring water to residential neighbourhoods, leading to years of intermittent shortages.

But a Russian air strike in November on a treatment plant held by the Islamic State group has left 1.4 million people in the city without any water at all.

Residents must now turn to makeshift wells throughout the city or buy from private distributors.

One enterprising young man drives a dirty white Suzuki truck outfitted with a large cistern.

After drawing up water from bore holes around the city, he uses a small motorised pump to distribute it into neighbourhood tanks.

- 'Princes of Aleppo' -

"These drivers have become the princes of Aleppo, because everyone needs them," said Jana Marja, a 21-year-old student who lives in the western government-held al-Siryan neighbourhood.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said Aleppo's western districts have been hit harder by the crisis because they are more densely populated.

Marja said she regularly sees men, women and children lining up with plastic containers near neighbourhood wells.

"Waiting has become a career option -- people pay for others to secure them a spot in line," Marja said, adding that dark humour is helping people to cope.

"The complaint you hear the most in Aleppo is 'My hair is oily,'" she said.

"There's a joke making the rounds that even Aleppan girls who haven't showered in a month are still more beautiful than Parisian girls."

In Bustan al-Qasr, an opposition-controlled district along the city's front line, Abu Amer said his family is struggling with the recent shortages.

"Sometimes the water would cut for a whole month, but this one is the longest since the beginning of the war in Aleppo," the father of three said.

Abu Amer pays for his family to access water from a neighbourhood cistern for cleaning and cooking.

His family has adopted a rationing system for water usage and typically take only one bath a week.

And their drinking water comes all the way from Turkey.

"I used to buy 12 bottles for 450 Syrian pounds, but now the prices have doubled to 900 pounds," or to nearly $4, he said.

- 'Water is like gold' -

Rawan Damen, a university student in the regime's Mogambo neighbourhood, said her family now pays about 1,350 Syrian pounds to fill up the 1,000-litre tank on their roof.

She reluctantly buys overpriced bottled water from a local supermarket, but said others just boil water from wells and mix in a disinfectant capsule available at pharmacies.

Many complain of painful health problems after consuming the wellwater.

"My family and I were forced to drink from the wells, which poisoned me and one of my children," said Abu Mohammad, who is unemployed and lives with his six children in Aleppo city.

"We were hit with intestinal infections, diarrhoea and vomiting."

To obtain their share from local cisterns or find safe drinking wells, residents are getting creative.

Some have set up groups on social media and on mobile messaging applications to let each other know when local cisterns have been filled.

"People follow pages on Facebook that post about drinking water, and the news gets shared very quickly on WhatsApp and on the Internet in general," said Fadi Nasrallah, a computer engineer in the city.

Residents are also using their phones to access a GPS-enabled map, developed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, to see where the closest water wells are in their neighbourhoods.

"Before the war, I didn't pay attention to how much water I used," said 29-year-old Ali. "But now, water is like gold for me. It's practically holy."

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