Syrian refugee crisis: The true value of water

What do you know about water?

Before I went to Lebanon, I knew that it is life-saving and that clean water is key to preventing diseases. But I never realized how much its value extends beyond that. I never understood the dignity and comfort that it can offer people in hard times -- until this past month.

In May and June, I was in Lebanon, helping with World Vision’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, providing information about our work for supporters, coordinating media visits, and communicating the needs that our staff identify in the communities and settlements where they work.

The places where Syrian refugees are living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley are not like the refugee camps that I’ve seen on TV. Tents are often in small groups, constructed from pieces of wood, bits of tin or plywood, tarpaulins from advertising billboards -- whatever people can find. The more established shelters may have been here for as long as two years. Others were constructed this week. Instead of being organized in large open fields, these shelters are set up wherever people can find a bit of land. They sit alongside houses, farms, and businesses.

When I first visited one of these settlements, I spoke with Ramiah, a mother who had arrived with her husband and children in Lebanon 15 days before, fleeing the violence in Syria. She told me that her number-one priority was getting clean water for her children, two of whom bear scars from shrapnel and burns. Ramiah added that her little girl, Usra, wakes up screaming at night.

With all they’ve been through, water doesn’t seem like enough. It’s so basic.  I want them to have their homes, their country, their old lives back. But I can’t give them those things.

Water is something the international community can provide. And the impact of World Vision’s water, sanitation, and hygiene programs runs deeper than I understood before arriving in Lebanon. I knew that water is crucial to life, especially during the Lebanese summer. I knew that diarrhea and skin diseases are likely to spring up in the absence of clean water. And I knew that the spread of disease increases with a lack of functioning toilets.

Families gather around the newly-installed latrine in a makeshift camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah/World Vision)

But I didn’t understand the comfort and dignity that this basic element can provide. In a situation where so much is beyond your control, the dignity of privacy and the comfort of being able to wash yourself and your children are small, treasured comforts.

When I returned to the settlement where Ramiah and her family live a few weeks after my first visit, I found that World Vision had installed water tanks and cylindrical white buildings (latrines) between tents. The families were proud to show me the new tanks they had helped to install. They explained how the water they used for washing was kept in a tank and reused to flush the latrines.

In the midst of a crisis that seems so enormous, so complex, and so overwhelming, I’m heartened to see that the support of our donors is giving families the comfort and dignity of clean water and toilets.

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Joy Toose is the social media manager for World Vision Australia.

Make a one-time donation to help World Vision provide emergency assistance for Syrian refugees who have fled the escalating violence in their country. Your gift will help us bring interventions like food vouchers, cooking supplies, water and sanitation initiatives, and more. Many families have lost everything as conflict has taken their homes and livelihoods.

Please join us in prayer for all World Vision staff members working around the world, particularly in this region of conflict.

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