In Aleppo, cell phones are helping some desperate Syrians find clean water

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills in for Marco Werman and you’re listening to The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston. Technology is changing the way we live, we all know that. But it’s also changing how people survive in war zones. Smartphones, SIM cards, global positioning apps, and social media are empowering those with the resources to avoid danger areas and to find food and clean water. Pawel Krzysiek works with the International Committee of the Red Cross in one of Syria’s most war-torn cities, Aleppo. He says when a water main broke in Aleppo last month, his group used Facebook to post a map of where to find clean drinking water and there was an overwhelming response.


Pawel Krzysiek: What we actually observed when we posted the information about this alternative source of water, is that the people engaged, the people interacted. Not only did they consume the information that we gave them, but also they engaged with us. First of all, they shared it with their friends, then they were sending us feedback either by comments or by direct messages, both positive and negative, so we could adapt, adjust our response. Just to give you an example: the people were telling us “In my neighborhood, the tap is not working,” or “Is the water in this borehole that you put on the map safe to drink? Did you test it so we can drink it safely?”


Hills: So you’re talking about how not only people responded to what was posted but they, themselves, interacted and posted helpful comments about where to find clean drinking water points.


Krzysiek: Yes. For instance, as we’re hearing right now, the people are (?) right now, as we speak, the water in the taps. But this water can dry out very soon and then for days, maybe weeks, the people can be without water. In the particularly harsh climate, summer climate of Aleppo, this is a huge problem. What was impressive for us is that we were able to get from the people the feedback about our activities, about our interventions, because we don’t only want to inform the people of what we’ve done but we want to improve and adjust so they can benefit even more from what we are doing here in the city. For instance, we received lately a message from the family of the Syrian migrant who was on their way to Europe, asking us to help his brother that was in danger in the sea. Well, I ICRC could not really help because we don’t have any sea rescue unit in this regard, but we immediately gave them the Twitter account of the Medicine San Frontiers Sea Rescue account so they could contact them and tell them about the problem. This is the connection that we try to make. So now we are in this interactive gear, we can really make a difference.


Hills: Can you tell us how many people are kind of interacting with you? Like, how many people are looking at your Facebook page when you look at the Facebook analytics report?


Krzysiek: Yeah, so looking at the Facebook analytics reports”¦ For instance, the post about the water in Aleppo has reached some 140,000 people with a very engagement rate--so the number of people sharing or clicking “Like” or commenting on the post.


Hills: Are you using Facebook--is your organization using Facebook to help people in Aleppo understand the dangerous areas of town, where those dangerous areas of town are?


Krzysiek: No, we don’t. But there are other social media initiatives coming from the community. For instance, in Damascus you have this Facebook page that informs people about the areas that has been affected by the mortars or explosions in town so that people can avoid going to this place.


Hills: Pawel, Aleppo has been called “Syria’s most war-torn city.” What does it look like now? Give us a sort of visual. When you walk outside, what do you see?


Krzysiek: When I actually worked in Syria before the crisis and then this was my first visit to Aleppo since five years, and I have to tell you that I’m very, very shocked with what I’m seeing. Aleppo has been the heart of Syria; very vibrant, very lively city. What you observe right now is the city that is divided, is the city where people are living in unfurnished and unfinished buildings on the outskirts of Aleppo, in the skeleton buildings without any facilities, any access to water, any sanitation, only because they have no other place to go and they were displaced because of the violence.


Hills: Pawel, you said you had been in Aleppo before the war and you’ve returned now. Is there a particular place that really struck you when you returned, in terms of how much it had changed?


Krzysiek: You can’t really see the enormous cultural heritage of Aleppo, being old town, being the old Souk, being the Citadel, that you cannot really access these places is striking. But what is more striking is that there’s hundreds of thousands of people right now squatting in the unfinished buildings, that nearly two million people are left for days without water, without electricity. The human suffering is what strikes me the most right now.


Hills: That was Pawel Krzysiek. He works with the International Committee of Red Cross in Aleppo, Syria, and he was speaking to us via Skype.