BEIRUT — The guns have fallen silent near Syria’s capital, but war still shapes the rhythm of life.
First it was the price of food, which has risen steadily over the years as the fighting spread to nearby farmlands. Then came daily blackouts, affecting poor areas disproportionately and leaving most reliant on generators.
But for many in Damascus, the loss of drinking water last month was hardest to take, underscoring as it did the government’s fragile hold on its most important resources as the more than five-year-old war turns in its favor.
Three weeks into the crisis, officials said over the weekend that repairs have begun on the facility that provided most of the capital’s water before it was damaged in heavy fighting in late December. But activists reported renewed government shelling of the area Sunday that left 12 people dead and that is threatening the progress of repairs.
According to the United Nations, at least 4 million people in and around Damascus are now cut off from the water grid after “deliberate targeting resulting in the damaged infrastructure.”
Photographs shared on social media from the Damascus suburbs show residents crowding around water trucks. Many have gone from near-daily showers to weekly baths — sometimes in public parks — and doctors say gastric illnesses are on the rise among children and the elderly sickened by unclean food and dishes.
For Terez, 40, whose accessories business closed after the economy plunged, it means worrying — about “everything.”
“The stresses are accelerating,” she said, speaking by phone from Damascus. She spoke on the condition that her family name not be used, to avoid government repercussions. “I have to worry about how to manage our water supply. I have to worry about charging my phone when we have electricity. I even have to worry about doing all the housework in the few hours before the power goes out.”
Most people still living in Syria are in areas held by the Assad government and its allies.
Although two recent suicide attacks have revived fears that insurgent bombings will resume in Damascus, the area is largely free of rebel shelling for the first time in years. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have crushed most of the province’s armed opposition.
All sides in Syria’s war have fought hard to control resources.
An informal agreement with rebel groups in the valley of Wadi Barada left a key spring there functioning for years, but it was badly damaged last month when pro-government forces attempted to wrest back control of the facility.
Syrian officials accused the rebels of causing the damage. Local residents said it was the government, claiming that Syrian army helicopters had dropped barrel bombs on the main Ain al-Fijah water facility, leaving its pumping system out of service.
The progress of repairs was unclear Sunday, as activists in Wadi Barada and with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said government shelling had killed at least 12 displaced people taking shelter in a nearby banquet hall.
As the crisis builds, Damascus authorities have issued strict regulations on remaining water stocks, mostly from boreholes or distributed by private trucks — leaving families with only a few hours of access every two or three days.
Those with money have turned to private distributors, a system in which neither price nor quality is regulated.
Others have turned to DIY methods. Rain is collected in pots, pans and even satellite dishes. In a video posted to Facebook last week, a woman is seen washing dishes with a faucet fashioned from a bottle. “We Syrians, we always have a way,” she said. “You switch off the tap, we create a tap. You take away water, we find water.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it is supporting distribution of water to hospitals, schools and bakeries across the capital. “Everyone is being very cautious about their consumption now. You never know if what you have left will be the last,” said Ingy Sedky, a spokeswoman.
On WhatsApp and Facebook, residents shared cartoons to express their annoyance: pictures of men saving water by showering stacked on each other’s shoulders, or of signs encouraging men and women to shower together.
And though many blame rebel forces for the damage, frustration with the government’s inability to secure basic services appears to be rising.
“Now there is indignation against the state because they’re delaying a military solution,” said Ammar Ismaiel, a 43-year-old systems engineer who said a lack of washing water had left him wearing the same clothes all week.
After more than five years of conflict, opposition groups have been bombed to capitulation across much of the country, leveling neighborhoods in once-densely populated urban areas and spurring the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Control of Syria’s natural resources, particularly in the energy and agricultural sectors, will be vital if the government is to rebuild the territory it ends up controlling.
Oil output has dwindled throughout Syria’s war, first as a result of international sanctions and then as oil fields fell into the hands of the Islamic State or Kurdish groups.
In a research note published last week, Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said recapturing that region would be “indispensable” if Assad wants to refill state coffers and win economic independence from his Russian and Iranian backers.
In Damascus on Friday, one teacher was newly arrived from the shattered former opposition stronghold of eastern Aleppo. She said her parents had begged her for months to join them in the capital, reuniting the family in a middle-class neighborhood where she had played during childhood vacations.
Reached on WhatsApp and speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety, the woman said the area was “unrecognizable” from family photographs.
“We came here for stability when our homes became unlivable, but what is this? There are people out on the streets hunting water. There is nothing in our taps,” she said.
“We opposed the government because we thought we could win, and we lost. We’re here because finally, after all these years, we need a state to look after us.”
Heba Habib in Stockholm contributed to this report.