Watching water and sanitation in an invisible Syrian refugee camp

Lamis Qdemat reflects on the video “A wake-up call:  water and sanitation in an invisible Syrian refugee camp” that she made together with photographer Suliman Okla for her “capita selecta” studies at IHE Delft Master program in Water Management and Governance.

The Camp in the eyes of the video maker (Credits: Suliman Okla)

I am a student of Palestinian origin living in the Netherlands and studying Water Management and Governance at IHE Delft. During my studies, I chose to do a capita selecta under the supervision of Dr. Emanuele Fantini. Capita selecta modules allow us to structure courses based on our specific learning interests when they are not matched by existing IHE courses. In my case , the first learning objective was to illustrate the main problems related to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) governance in a humanitarian context, with a focus on Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and on informal refugee camps. My second goal was to learn how to collaborate with communication specialists and effectively direct them to film a video on technical and scientific issues related to WASH in informal refugee camps.

Thus, I contacted the content creator and documentary photographer Suliman Okla. Okla is of Syrian origin, and holds a Turkish citizenship. He has spent the last years helping displaced people in northern Syria and Syrian refugees in Turkey. As photographer, he has been keen in documenting the reality of refugee camps in North Syria and to inform the global public opinion about their issues.

Thanks to Okla’s ability to enter northern Syria, we have had this remarkable documentary work that illustrate the reality of the displaced and reflects their suffering. I should also mention that Okla himself was displaced from his hometown to the north of Syria. After facing similar suffering, he was lucky to be able to enter Turkey and to apply for a refugee permit.

The video describes the refugees’ everyday challenges to access water and sanitation in their camp, located in northern Syria and bordered by Turkey. The video is constructed around the water and sanitation routine of a family. It begins with the father, who works as a water contractor to deliver water to the refugees and his family. Then, the mother answers questions about the conditions of the sanitation facilities in the camp. And finally the grandmother shares their experience on hygiene and everyday challenges.

Unnamed, unregistered and invisible

Ten long years into the war in Syria, the white displacement tents dot the northern landscape, and the uprooted families attempt to live among many challenges, especially in terms of access to water and sanitation. Coincidentally, when the Syrians had to face the war, the United Nations in 2010 recognised the right to water and sanitation as a fundamental human right. This right entitles everyone, especially the vulnerable and marginalised, to adequate, safe, accessible, culturally acceptable, and affordable water and sanitation services for personal and home use, delivered in a participative, responsible, and non-discriminatory way.

However, the facts on the ground are heart-breaking. According to recent reports published by UNHCR and UNICEF, 6.2 million internally forced displaced Syrians are trying to live with the simplest means available and take care of their families. But how can we protect and promote their right to water and sanitation if they do not have a name, and if they are not registered and therefore invisible?

Neither the government, nor the UN or other NGOs officially recognized and registered the camp. This makes the camp and its inhabitants invisible, as if they did not exist in the first place. Thus, the twenty families of Syrian refugees who live there are not on the world map and are deprived of any rights and affiliation. Such situation puts all the UN resolution, norms and procedure aside!

The daily struggle for water and sanitation

The family father on his water truck (Source: Suliman Okla)

In 2015, the UN Security Council allowed five border crossings for humanitarian aid entry into Syria for a five-year time, which ended on the 11th of July 2020. Following that, and to complicate matters, the UN Security Council approved a new resolution on cross-border aid in the northwest of the country, limiting the access through one crossing point (Bab Al-Hawa) only for another year.

This was approved under the condition of collaboration with the Syrian regime, leaving more than 2.4 million people in the region dependent on cross-border humanitarian assistance. As a result, humanitarian organizations struggle to keep up with rapidly growing needs. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, UN appeals have been significantly underfunded every single year. In 2020, the UN approved $6 billion funds to provide emergency support in the region, but less than half of that was actually received.

As described by the family father, Khaled Abu Aboud, when they came to this camp, an organization handled the water issue, but it was cut off after a short time. After that, the refugees started to use trucks left from the organization to carry water tanks from the nearest water wells. Each family gets a small share of around one cubic meter every four days. Thus, the average daily consumption for each person in the camp is around 27 liters – four times below the water consumption in a city like Amsterdam – and below the recommended standard set by the World Health Organization. 

In the Camp, the drinking water is the same as washing water. It is suitable for drinking, but for children, it is unhealthy because it contains limestone. Still, children drink it anyway; we do not have any other alternatives.”

The father

The shared outdoor toilet (Credits: Suliman Okla)

In theory, the Sphere standards “Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response” recommend that the adequate and acceptable type of toilet should follow some of the critical indicators, such as the ratio of shared toilets of a minimum of 1 per 20 people, and the toilets should be safe to use for all of the population, including children, older people, pregnant women and persons with disabilities. Also, the toilets should have inside locks and provide easy access to water for handwashing, anal cleansing and flushing. Furthermore, the toilet should allow for the dignified cleaning, drying and disposal of women’s menstrual hygiene materials, child and adult incontinence materials, and more.

In reality, there is only one shared outdoor toilet for every four or five families, and given the average size of a single family, which ranges from five to seven people, a shared toilet serves about thirty people. These toilets do not serve privacy and are unsafe because only a few blankets or blocks cover them. Further, the same toilet is shared by different sex and age groups – men, women, and children – with no locks inside and very poor hygiene!

We all use one outdoor toilet, which is uncomfortable and unclean, but we have to use it”

The mother

In addition, the grandmother expressed her concerns about the health of the children in the camp. Most of the children suffer from diseases due to lack of hygiene, because of the polluted water on the road and dust. The camp residents strive for the best possible cleanliness, but they are unable to achieve satisfactory levels of hygiene, which in turn affects children’s health.

We wash our children, cook, and wash dishes, all in the same tent!

The grandmother

The Wake-up Call 

The film wants to send a wake up call message through the eyes of the displaced people. The message is directed to relevant humanitarian organisations. Providing aid to the internally displaced should be among the responsibilities of humanitarian organisations, similar to providing aid to refugees displaced beyond the national border. Nevertheless, what we see in this camp is the absence of such interventions. Furthermore, no organisation or government bothered to register or name the camp. Thereby, the camp and its residents remain, until now, legally invisible. In the video we do not hold any organisation responsible, nor do we say that humanitarian organisations do not assist people in displacement camps. We are trying to point out that being displaced within national borders, rather than beyond national borders, undermines people’s rights in all its forms, since IDPs legally do not match the official definition of “refugee” provided in international law.

The main problem is that the legal responsibility to assist internally displaced people belong to the national government whose failure or misconduct is often the root cause of the displacement. Thus, a big void remains in the current international laws and standards remains: who is responsible and can be held accountable for securing a healthy and clean life for internally displaced people? 

Perhaps this call for action carries an echo. This call is not only for institutions but also for young people and researchers. There is plenty of room to focus research and action to contribute filling this void. It is essential to raise the number of studies because research links people together in a network, and this network can exert societal pressure on international and governmental institutions to intervene. Our duty is to reach as many as possible through the video and this blog post. The video was shared with the students of IHE Delft MSc program in Water Management and Governance. With them, we tested and discussed the effectiveness of the video in terms of eliciting emotions among participants and pushing them to act. Overall the feedback by my fellow students was positive: they highly appreciated the content of the video, and they found its technical elements ( interviews, location, sound and voiceover) relevant and meaningful in relation to the video’s main goal. More importantly, we asked the students what they could do next, after watching this story. Some shared they readiness to do anything feasible; others expressed their commitment to do further research on the topic and to raise awareness through communication; other mentioned the importance of volunteering in the refugee camps.

The Camp (Credits: Suliman Okla)

We are aware that overcoming water and sanitation challenges in northern Syria refugee camps will be an arduous task, but we have a million reasons to remain hopeful and committed. In more than ten exhausting years of war, Syrians have not given up the belief that a better future lies ahead. Thus, we won’t give up on them. 

Dear reader of this blog, you can at least make a change by sharing this blog among your friends and watching the film. You and others can make change happening!

Cite this blog post
Lamis Qdemat (2022, February 18). Watching water and sanitation in an invisible Syrian refugee camp. FLOWs. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Lamis Qdemat

I am a student of Palestinian origin living in the Netherlands and studying Water Management and Governance at IHE Delft for Water Education.

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