October 20th, 2014 by Katarina Montgomery

Thousands of Palestinian refugees are trapped inside Yarmouk refugee camp, facing starvation, malnutrition, disease and now face a threat of lack of water supply.

Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp, on the outskirts of Damascus, has been under siege by Syrian government forces since December 2012. Thousands of Palestinian refugees are trapped inside the camp, facing starvation, malnutrition, disease and now face a threat of lack of water supply.

Yarmouk has been without a steady water supply since early September 2014, forcing its 18,000 civilians to rely on untreated groundwater and a single well. These sources of water are failing to meet minimum water and sanitation needs. As a result, Yarmouk’s civilians are now at the risk of acute dehydration and waterborne diseases.

Distribution of aid in Yarmouk has often been interrupted or proved impossible because of exchanges of hostilities between rebel groups and government forces.

At best, U.N. aid workers get access to the camp three times a week, says Chris Gunness, a spokesman for The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Gunness spoke to Syria Deeply about the need for increased and sustained access to Yarmouk’s civilians amid deteriorating conditions on the ground.

Syria Deeply: What are the current conditions in the camp? How many people are living there?

Gunness: We estimate that there are 18,000 people there, which when you consider that the population was 160,000 before the fighting, is very telling. People are coping very badly because the public infrastructure has been appallingly degraded. There had already been wide destruction to the camp. Every day the siege continues, the situation gets worse. The fact that we have such little access in humanitarian terms is a continuing concern.

There is endemic malnutrition and people are dying, but what kills them is impossible for us to say. You can certainly say that insufficient intake of all the things that make up a normal diet is undoubtedly contributing very significantly to the decline in public health and could have very easily contributed to the deaths of residents in the camp.

Syria Deeply: We’ve heard that some residents are without access to clean water. How are they coping?

Gunness: Since September, there has been a real problem with water in Yarmouk because there is at least one very badly broken pipe. I’m not sure if it was broken during fighting or has been so badly degraded because the siege has been going on so long.

There has been essentially no water since early September. Residents of Yarmouk rely on ground water and a single well. We are following up with people and the relevant authorities, but our understanding is that the area that needs repair is in an insecure part of the capital, so it will be very hard and a concerted fiscal effort to get the pipe mended.

Food insecurity is there and now there is water insecurity.

Syria Deeply: What is the status of public health and medical services? Are people at high risk of disease?

Gunness: There are reports of an increase in diarrhea, a classic sign of waterborne diseases and decreasing standards of public health. It’s unimaginably grim.

People are at high risk because the quality of water has decreased remarkably since September. There is no access to main water; tap water isn’t even flowing. There is one well in the camp and groundwater. We, wherever we send distribution teams, do our best to send in mobile clinics, but it’s not a substitute for a fully functioning hospital. It’s appalling. We rely on political parties for access and three days a week is not enough. We need to get more in. It’s as simple as that.

Syria Deeply: Have UNRWA or other aid agencies been able to deliver aid to Yarmouk? Has aid access improved since U.N. Resolution 2165 passed in the Security Council?

It’s become a little bit more regular in the sense that we can say that we can just about get in three times a week. The resolution doesn’t say, can UNRWA please have access three times a week. The resolution is very clear – unimpeded access.

The demands of the resolution and the obligations of the parties of that resolution are not being met. The access we are getting is not good enough and people are suffering appallingly because of it.

Syria Deeply: How will the cuts at the World Food Programme and donor shortfalls in general impact the people in Yarmouk?

Gunness: With all the attention on Gaza, (5.4 billion pledge in aid) we are looking increasingly in Syria at the prospect of having to cut our appallingly inadequate services already. I’m not announcing cuts, all I’m saying is that it’s looking increasingly possible that we will have to look at it because donor funds are not unlimited and there is so much competition for funds. If it’s not Gaza, it’s Ebola etc.

Syria Deeply: How have hostilities on the ground between rebel groups and the government forces impacted civilians living in Yarmouk?

Gunness: Sometimes there are clashes so we can’t even get very limited access. We are getting access to distribute humanitarian assistance to the camp only three times a week. Sometimes it depends on politics and sometimes it depends on the security conditions on the ground.

Syria Deeply: What is the biggest challenge holding you back?

Gunness: Access to people and the siege. If the siege was lifted, we could have proper access for our doctors and social workers to go in, to get a better handle on what’s happening about the suffering. It’s not just health, it’s education – schools have been so badly damaged.