Six-day water shortage hits remote Rukban displacement camp

AMMAN: For nearly a week, the flow of Jordanian-supplied water to a remote displacement camp on Syria's southern border has been mostly cut off, sources on the ground told Syria Direct on Thursday, leaving tens of thousands of residents with reduced access.

Officially, water reaches the Rukban camp—home to roughly 60,000 displaced Syrians—via two water pumps based directly across the border in Jordan. Rukban itself is located within a desolate no-man’s land between two earthen mounds demarcating the border between northern Jordan and southern Syria known as the “berm.”

But since six days ago, one of the two water pumps—the one running directly to the camp—has been out of service. The reason for the cutoff is "maintenance work" on the pump, Mohammad Jarrah, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army-aligned Maghawir a-Thawra militia told Syria Direct from Rukban. His faction maintains a presence in the camp, where fighters claim they work to “secure” the informal settlement.

A UN official who spoke with Syria Direct on Thursday confirmed “ongoing maintenance work” on the broken water pump. UNICEF is responsible for overseeing the two water pumps supplying Rukban from Jordan.

Rukban residents bring water to the camp on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Abu Mohammad al-Akidi/Rukban Local Council. 

The second pump supplying water into the camp, though reportedly still functional, is located some seven kilometers away from Rukban, and overseen—though unofficially—by rebel factions who demand a steep price for filling up there, a former camp official told Syria Direct during the last cutoff in June.

The current water shortage is the second time in the last four months that a simple breakdown of one of the water pumps has left tens of thousands of vulnerable, displaced residents of Rukban with reduced access to safe drinking water. In June, the same water pump cut off for unknown reasons, leaving Rukban without reliable water for at least one month.

The UN is currently trucking water to Rukban while the pump is undergoing maintenance, the official said. Even so, camp residents are also reportedly resorting to purchasing "salty,” unclean water from a privately owned well located roughly 15 kilometers west of the camp, Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas, head of Rukban’s local council told Syria Direct.

“Water from the well costs around SP1,200 [approximately $2] per 200-liter barrel,” a-Darbas added—still an exorbitant cost for Rukban’s impoverished, displaced residents. “And the water itself tastes of sulfur. It's disgusting."

Many residents continued to rely on that water even as the main pump supplying the camp reportedly sputtered off and on throughout Thursday, said a-Darbas and Jarrah. 

For the UN’s part, maintenance work on the broken-down pump is “completed,” with the pump set to resume “full operation” by Friday, the official told Syria Direct.

But the severe impact of the shortage—even after just six days—highlights the vulnerability of camp residents to basic service malfunctions, as they remain stranded in a barren corner of desert with few reliable local water sources. 

Camp residents already face dire food and medicine shortages, as well as a general sense of lawlessness as local rebel militias reportedly roam the tents with virtually no repercussions. Islamic State-claimed bomb attacks sporadically strike both Rukban and its outskirts. Approaching regime forces also scared thousands of residents away in recent weeks, as they made risky trips back home across the desert to regime territory, for fear of fighting reaching them in Rukban. Camp residents are forbidden from entering Jordanian territory, except in rare medical cases.

This week, even residents resorting to expensive, questionable local well water from sellers outside the camp often returned to their tents in Rukban empty handed.

"Many people are returning with nothing," Abu Ward, a 25-year-old Rukban resident said. "It was so crowded, they couldn’t fill up their containers."

 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.