Original Article, by The National Interest, on March 26, 2020

Turkish-backed rebels reopened a pumping station in Northeast Syria on Thursday, restoring clean water to hundreds of thousands of Syrians in a region unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic.

Northeast Syria has been split between Turkish-backed and Kurdish-led forces since a Turkish invasion in October. A combination of Russian, Turkish, and U.S. forces is now keeping the peace. But the fractured region may be unprepared for the type of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak that has ravaged the rest of the world.

Turkish-backed forces had shut down the Allouk water pump on Sunday, cutting off four hundred thousand people in Kurdish-held areas from access to clean water. The four-day shutdown was a preview of the cascading crisis that a combination of coronavirus and civil war could bring to the region.

“The interruption of water supply during the current efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus disease puts children and families at unacceptable risk,” warned Fran Equiza, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative for Syria, on Monday. “Handwashing with soap is critical in the fight against COVID-19.”

The water station was apparently shut down during a dispute between Turkish-backed rebels and Russian peacekeepers. Local officials reported that Turkey was using water as a “bargaining chip” to secure electricity from Kurdish-held areas, while a local media outlet called the Rojava Information Center said that the rebels cited coronavirus fears to block engineers’  access to the water station.

The plant spun back to life on Thursday, according to both the Rojava Information Center and Kurdish diplomat Sinam Mohamad.

Mohamad claimed that the plant is only partially operating at the moment. She attributed the decision to reopen it to “pressure” from the United Nations.

But access to water is not the only problem local authorities are facing.

Dilgesh Issa, a medical coordinator for the Kurdish Red Crescent, told the National Interest that different types of protective equipment such as masks and gowns are “currently available but it depends on the type.”

“There are types available at a good rate, and others are scarce, and for some, there is fear of an inability to obtain it, but we depend on local alternatives,” he said in Arabic. “This is due to the global demand for these items and the blockade previously imposed on the region.”

The region could be in an even worse situation if the disease spreads uncontrollably. Kurdish-led authorities are enforcing a lockdown on the region. But they must go through the World Health Organization or the Syrian central government in Damascus to access test kits, which are necessary to track the spread of the disease.

Local health authorities have tested four people, all of whom were negative, according to Dr. Menal Mohammad, an official with the Kurdish-led Democratic Self-Administration.

She claimed that the Democratic Self-Administration has “about 30 beds in intensive care” and ten ventilators. The Rojava Information Center said that there are forty ventilators in the region.

Four million people live in Northeast Syria. About five percent of people infected with COVID-19 require intensive care.

“We will work according to the available resources and we will work on [preventative] measures,” Dr. Mohammad told the National Interest.

Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest.