Defending the Orontes: A community effort to restore a city lifeline

Workers install water pumps
Workers install water pumps in the Orontes River in Hama in order to facilitate water movement and combat the severe odours caused by water stagnation. Photo: UNDP Syria

The main bridge in the Hama city centre looks out over the quiet waters of the Orontes River, an artery flowing northward from Lebanon, through Syria and onward into Turkey. In more peaceful times, people travelled to Hama from all over the world to glimpse the river and its seventeen majestic norias, giant water wheels dating back to the Byzantine era.

The ancient norias once shifted water between different elevations to water gardens and irrigate fields. They are now disused, but the river remains at the centre of life for the people of Hama and for the new arrivals from neighbouring provinces.

Highlights

  • Hama is host to more than 500,000 internally displaced persons escaping the fighting in other parts of Syria.
  • Increased population and reduced rainfall have placed a heavy strain on the Orontes River, a vital source of water for the local population.
  • As part of a livelihood revival and rehabilitation of basic infrastructure initiative, UNDP has established a 40-member team to clean up the Orontes River.
  • Workers have cleaned along 3 kilometres of the river, benefiting 11 neighbourhoods with a cumulative population of 150,000 residents.

“I came here from Aleppo with my wife and 10 children with nothing but the clothes we had on,” says Adnan Mkayes. The 49-year-old stone mason and his family are among the more than 104,000 families who have arrived in Hama in recent months and years, escaping the fighting in other parts of Syria.

The Hama region is an important agricultural centre in Syria, and the area around the river contains about 300 hectares of farmland growing mostly vegetables. The potatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini produced in the fields help to feed the local population.

With water pipelines and other infrastructure suffering from damage and neglect, the Orontes provides an alternative solution for access to water. But it has seen the consequences of the dramatic rise in population. Garbage has increased from 500 tonnes per day to more than 750 tonnes per day; most ends up in the river.

Combined with a reduction in rainfall, this has placed a heavy strain on the Orontes, choking the city’s lifeline. The odour emitted by the stagnant waters forced Hama residents to keep their doors and windows perpetually closed.

This misfortune has however brought about an opportunity. As part of a livelihood revival and rehabilitation of basic infrastructure initiative led by UNDP, the river is getting a new lease of life.

The project has put together a 40-member team to clean up the Orontes, picking up garbage along the river banks and surrounding gardens and replanting trees and agricultural crops where possible. The team is made up of 22 local men and 18 men displaced from other regions of Syria. Each worker is paid about 25,000 Syrian Pounds (US$ 150) in monthly wages.

“The money I receive from this work allows me to buy the basic things that my family needs,” says Adnan Mkayes, who was a marble stone installer back in Aleppo and now lives in a two-room apartment with his family of 12. “This makes me feel so blessed especially that I am not receiving this money as a cash handout from charities.”

Beyond training and equipping the 40 workers, UNDP also provided the community with five water pumps located in front of the main city bridge. The water pumps power water wheels that churn the still waters in order to keep odours at bay.

These smaller scale water wheels take inspiration from the ancient norias that were built thousands of years ago here in Hama. “Although not grand like the notorious norias of Hama, these water wheels have created an affordable and sustainable solution to solve the problem,” says Ali Kayali, the UNDP area manager in Hama.

Although the number of workers is small in comparison to the substantial challenges the river faces, the project has already had a significant impact. So far, the workers have cleaned along three kilometres of the river, covering 11 neighbourhoods in the city of Hama with a cumulative population of 150,000 residents. In just 21 days of work, they had managed to remove 25,000 kilograms of garbage.

“While UNDP’s main focus is to generate income for the displaced people living in Hama, the environment and the communities are major benefactors of this initiative,” Kayali says.

Adnan and the rest of the team have been greatly appreciated by the communities who live along the three-kilometre stretch that has been targeted. The clean-up has drastically reduced odours, allowing residents to unshutter their windows, stroll along the banks of the river and once more appreciate this natural treasure.

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