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DAMASCUS, Syria – Omar Tarshan had never visited any of Syria's famous public baths until three weeks ago, when a water shortage in his Damascus neighborhood forced him to look for an alternative place to shower.
On Monday night, the 25-year-old accountant came with a colleague, Safwat Hariri, to the 1,000-year-old bath house in the old quarter of Damascus — the Hammam al-Malik al Zahir — where each was given two towels, a loofah and a piece of traditional olive oil soap. Minutes later, they stepped into the bath, enveloped by thick vapor.
The two men share the frustration of many other residents of the Syrian capital, forced to wait in long lines to fill their jerry cans after fighting with rebels in a valley northwest of Damascus cut off the main water line for the city last month. The more affluent, pay tanker trucks to come and fill up their tanks at home.
"We have no water at home and so I discovered the public bath," said Tarshan, a terry cloth wrapped around his waist.
The bath house, like others in Syria, has its own well and doesn't rely on the public water network.
Since Dec. 22, the fighting in Barada Valley has severely restricted the flow of water to Damascus, piling up more hardship on the city's 5 million people already suffering massive power cuts, rising food prices and general erosion in all services as Syria's brutal conflict is about to enter its seventh year.
President Bashar Assad's government forces fighting for control of the opposition-held Barada Valley say the rebels contaminated the area's Ein al-Fijeh spring with diesel. The rebels say government airstrikes damaged the water source.
As insulated as Damascus has been from the effects of the civil war that has torn much of the country apart, the recent water crisis has dominated the talk in much of the city.
Residents line up in front of public taps with containers in hand; others crowd around huge water tankers parked in residential neighborhoods. Government-owned tanker trucks ferry water around the clock to hospitals. Prices of bottled waters have doubled, as the fighting-stricken valley — Wadi Barada in Arabic — is home to some of the country's most famous drinking water companies.
A driver of one of the state-owned tanker trucks filled it up on Monday morning at a public tap in western Damascus, before heading across town to one of the e city's main hospitals. "We cannot leave hospitals without water," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to talk to the media.
There are concerns of illnesses spreading because people and restaurants don't have enough water to wash produce and clean utensils properly.
Private tanker truck owners are seeing their businesses boom. They sell 1,000 liters (264 gallons) of water for about $10 — a huge amount of money in a country where many people make no more than $100 a month.
The manager of the Damascus bath house, Bassam Kubab, said work has more than doubled since the water crisis began. But this has come at a cost to the quality of service, since he cannot afford to hire more staff, it would take too long for them to learn the business and who knows, by then the crisis might be over.
"This increase of work is not in our interest if we are speaking long term," Kubab said as dozens of customers crowded the bath house all at once — each paying $3.5 to use the showers.
Jihad al-Masri, a 52-year-old owner of a store that sells clothes, drove after work to a public tap in the western neighborhood of Mazzeh where he filled more than 10 containers to take home for washing dishes and showers.
"It has been more than 15 days and we don't have a drop of water," said the father of three girls. Instead of showering every other day, each family member now showers once a week, he said.
Sufian Mohammed Sharif came with his son in their pickup truck, packed with all kinds of small and large containers to take to their home in the suburb of Domar.
"In the past, we did not think about water ... now it has become a burden, an extra expense and humiliation," said the 55-year-old truck owner.
At one of the public taps in the Mazzeh neighborhood, about 20 people came to fill their water containers within half an hour.
"Not suitable for drinking," read a sign in Arabic above the tap.
Among those filling up was a small, elderly woman who was lugging several empty plastic bottles.
"We are the oppressed on earth," she muttered, mainly to herself, before slowly walking away toward her home.