After suspension of USAID project, 250,000 in north Homs without water subsidies

AMMAN: More than 250

AMMAN: More than 250,000 north Homs residents are without reliable and affordable access to water nearly three months after a USAID contractor suspended funding to the Homs Provincial Council.

The American development company Chemonics International suspended its north Homs work on June 29, citing a “loss of confidence” in the Homs Provincial Council due to “inconsistent field reporting,” a Chemonics project officer told Syria Direct without elaborating further. The wide-ranging $800,000 project provided funding to equip the local Civil Defense and to repair electricity lines, among other goals.

Chemonics International is the largest single donor since 2014 to the Homs Provincial Council, the civilian governing body that oversees humanitarian, medical and municipal services in a small, rebel-held pocket in north Homs province that is roughly the size of the city of Dubai. The pocket has been encircled by regime forces since 2014.

While the Homs Provincial Council claims that they bear “absolutely no responsibility for aid getting cut off,” council officials acknowledge they have previously lost other sources of funding due to internal corruption.

Some Chemonics contracts in Syria in recent years—including the currently suspended two-year, $800,000 project—fall under the aegis of the Syria Regional Program (SRP), a USAID initiative to provide, in its words, “assistance to moderate civilian entities at the national, provincial and local levels.”

USAID and Chemonics tell Syria Direct they are now in the twelfth week of reviewing the cutoff with the Homs Provincial Council. The timeline for restoring aid remains unclear.

A Meeting of the Rastan Local Council. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Voice.

“The suspended assistance to the Homs Provincial Council is pending review of several operational issues and challenges that we are currently discussing with the provincial council leadership,” a US official told Syria Direct.

“We’ll continue executing projects in the near future,” the Chemonics project officer, based in Gaziantep, Turkey, told Syria Direct, “but we don’t know exactly when…nobody has an answer to that.”

While the SRP, and specifically Chemonics, are not the only financial backers of the Homs Provincial Council, they are the largest individual donors, several councilmembers told Syria Direct. And in rebel-held Rastan—a once-wealthy Homs countryside city 20km north of the provincial capital—Chemonics funding long provided much-needed subsides for the blockaded city’s 100,000 residents.

One component of the suspended contract provided for water subsidies, enabling the provincial council to buy the fuel needed to run water pumps across its cities and towns.

However, since the funding freeze, north Homs families such as those in Rastan—the rebel-held pocket’s largest city—are now paying as much as SP8,000 (approx. $37.17) out of pocket monthly for water, either to independently purchase the fuel or to buy from expensive local water tankers.

The monthly salary for an employee of the Rastan Local Council—a high-paying job in rebel-held Syria—was SP40,000 (approx. $185.83) prior to the suspension of aid.

“This simply is not enough to make ends meet,” Yarub al-Dali, a Rastan-based citizen journalist told Syria Direct. “Additionally, as the value of the Syrian pound continues to fall, the basic costs of living, in turn, rise exponentially.”

Two years of heavy fighting from 2012 to 2014 crippled large parts of Rastan’s infrastructure. In early 2014, regime forces completed their encirclement of the north Homs pocket. No aid has entered the city since the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross delivered food, medical supplies and water-treatment materials on July 28.

In the face of stalling subsidies, “unemployment runs as high as 80 percent in the area,” al-Dali said. “The situation is dire.”

‘We were totally cut off’

In November 2012, a coalition of Syrian rebel groups formed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, to, among other things, ease the challenges of aid distribution across Syria’s opposition-controlled territories.

In its short lifespan, the coalition—also referred to by its Arabic name as the Etilaf—has cycled through many identities, from an opposition-in-exile mocked for taking Western cash and holding conferences in five-star Turkish hotels to an attempt to re-brand as an inclusive opposition operating inside Syria, but one that has nevertheless failed to bring the largest Syrian-Kurdish movements under its umbrella.

In March 2013, the Etilaf created what it calls the Interim Government, which oversees more than 100 provincial and local councils across parts of opposition-held Syria. It is through this network of elected councils that the Etilaf and its Interim Government ensure access to basic public services such as water, electricity and sanitation.

With the Etilaf funding, the Homs Provincial Council managed public services across the province’s northern countryside for nearly two years. But in 2014, “funding began to slowly decrease due to our inexperience in financial management,” the Homs Provincial Council President Amir Abdulqadir told Syria Direct.

“Eventually, we were totally cut off,” he added. “And since mid-2014, we haven’t received any funding from the Etilaf or the Interim Government.”

The council’s local project manager, Shaalan al-Dali, was more direct. “Look, aid was cut off [in 2014] because there was corruption in the Homs Provincial Council,” he told Syria Direct.

When asked for comment, an Interim Government spokesman said that the move to suspend aid was made by a previous cabinet. “You’ll have to speak with the former government,” one official told Syria Direct. “Cutting off aid was their decision.”

The 2014 interim government did not publish an official statement discussing—or even acknowledging—the termination of aid to the Homs Provincial Council.

“We haven’t seen a drop of aid from the Interim Government since then,” said council president Abdulqadir.

In turn, the provincial council’s coffers began to shrink; budget cuts and other austerity measures trickled down to the local level. Garbage went uncollected, electricity access became more infrequent and the price of water began to rise.

“All of this reflected poorly on the council’s ability to do their assigned job,” said Abdulqadir. “We were failing to meet the needs of our citizens.”

Yet where the Interim Government withdrew, a number of international aid organizations filled the vacuum. Chemonics International led the charge, and since 2013, the Washington DC-based organization has been awarded more than $150 million over 24 separate USAID-funded contracts.

Several of the Chemonics contracts come from USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), specifically their Syria Regional Program (SRP).

Chemonics aid flowed into the troubled provincial council until June 29.

“We started noticing certain errors and ambiguities coming from the Homs Provincial Council’s reports, particularly related to their well-digging projects,” the Chemonics project officer told Syria Direct. “The reports that they were giving us were not matching up with the reality on the ground.”

“This happened more than once, so we lost confidence in the council,” the project officer added. “For this reason, we cut off the aid.”

For the second time in two years, the Homs Provincial Council lost a critical pipeline of funding. While the council vehemently denies any charges of corruption in 2016, they do acknowledge instances of upper-level mismanagement of certain projects.

“The Homs Provincial Council bears absolutely no responsibility for aid getting cut off,” Shaalan al-Dali, the council’s lead project manager, told Syria Direct.

“We undertook an extensive investigation, and came across absolutely no financial wrongdoing whatsoever,” he added. “Sure, there were some errors in how we carried out the projects, but these were administrative at most, miscalculations on the part of the engineers overseeing the projects.”

“Did we make some mistakes? Yes, we did,” said Homs Provincial Council President Amir Abdulqadir. “At times, we assigned projects to those with whom we had close relationships—as opposed to necessarily those that were the best qualified—but we always believed that this favoritism was ultimately for the good.”

Both members of the Homs Provincial Council say they took action, firing several engineers and project managers while also instituting new procedures for monitoring and evaluating projects. The officials say that they have not received a final decision from Chemonics regarding the future of their partnership with the aid organization.

“We’ve reached out to Chemonics time and again to discuss these reforms, but we’ve never once heard anything definitive in response,” said council project manager Shaalan al-Dali. “It’s the civilians on the ground that are hurt the most by all of this.”

While citing issues with provincial council management, Chemonics has entirely suspended work on its $800,000 contract, impacting both the provincial and local levels during the ongoing “review process.”

Moving forward, Chemonics may resume aid operations by circumventing the Homs Provincial Council. “In the near future, we’ll begin working directly with the local councils on the ground in the north Homs countryside to execute these joint projects,” said the Chemonics project officer.

The local councils were tasked with carrying out humanitarian and public services on the ground, while the Homs Provincial Council oversaw the funding distribution and project management.

In the initial days following the Chemonics decision, the north Homs local councils were able to continue providing public services by dipping into their modest financial reserves. The Turkey-based charity White Hands even provided a two-week stopgap to purchase fuel; however, this onetime funding expires this Friday.

Today, the Rastan Local Council treasury has less than SP25,000 (approx. $116.70) needed to cover all public service expenses, Faisal al-Ezz, president of the Rastan Local Council, told Syria Direct’s partner organization, the Syrian Voice.

“The aid suspension really kneecapped the Rastan Local Council,” al-Ezz told Syria Direct. “We were completely caught off-guard by this decision, and there’s nothing at all that we can do right now.”

“Aid has totally halted. We can’t offer bread subsidies, we can’t offer water subsidies and we can’t administer any of our projects because of this situation,” the local council president said.

In Rastan, the lack of Chemonics funding means that the local council is unable to buy mazot, a cheap fuel used to run the city’s water infrastructure.

“We can’t afford to buy bread, and we’re unable to get water from the wells,” Abu Mohammed, a north Homs father of five, told the Syrian Voice. “At the very least, the local council needs to be able to ensure that we can get these two things.”

“We don’t blame the local council for what’s happened,” Abu Ahmed, another Rastan resident, told Syria Direct. “This situation falls on the shoulders of the provincial council and their inability to secure the local council’s funding that we need for our daily services.”

“We need sweeping reforms in Rastan,” local citizen journalist Yarub al-Dali told Syria Direct. “But unfortunately, we don’t have a safe and stable state…we don’t have the resources, and, most importantly, we don’t have the funding.”

“Things have been tough here for a while now…but right now they’re getting to be too much.”