Oxfam seeks greater reach in Syria after Damascus trip

By Sylvia Westall BEIRUT (Reuters) - Global aid agency Oxfam wants to double to three million the number of people it can reach inside Syria with water and hygiene projects, the head of Oxfam's British office said after meetings with officials in Damascus. Oxfam has been working with Syria's Ministry of Water Resources for the past 18 months by drilling wells, repairing old and damaged water networks and trucking water. "What I saw in Syria is that we need to scale up Oxfam's response as well as an international community response," Oxfam GB's Chief Executive Mark Goldring told Reuters late on Tuesday in Beirut after a visit over the border to Damascus. "We're committed to do that, we've been led to believe that we will get permission ... so we would expect our program to grow very substantially from benefiting 1.5 million to benefiting let's say 3 million people, in a year's time." The crisis that erupted in 2011 with protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has descended into a civil war that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced nearly half of the 22 million population. It is estimated that only around half of all Syrians now have access to tap water compared to well over 90 percent before the crisis, Goldring said. Oxfam has projects in Damascus and its surroundings, Homs, Aleppo and Idlib. The government determines where it can work in a country divided between the military, allied militia and various insurgent groups. Despite this, Oxfam says its work is able to reach people outside of government-held areas. "Oxfam does not have cross conflict line access, water does, and to the extent that those mains are operating, we have been supplying," Goldring said. "As a humanitarian right, we will do all we can to supply water wherever we can get it." Working in Syria on water access is unusual for Oxfam, which is more used to countries with a weaker infrastructure to start with, he said. It was not present in Syria before November 2013. "The relationship with the Ministry of Water Resources has been a learning experience on both sides. It's not normally the way that Oxfam works," he said. Oxfam now wants to expand its $16 million operation to include providing toilet and washing facilities, as well as promoting hygiene among displaced populations. It hopes to install a generator to help power water supplies for around 1 million in Aleppo. It opened a desalination plant in Hama province last week that will provide up to 35,000 people with drinking water from a previously redundant well. Goldring said there had been interest for work with local non-governmental organizations to support to displaced, unemployed people lacking equipment or skills. There was a need for a wider response to a crisis with no end in sight. "Nobody we talked to gave us a sense of great hope, whether that was from the international community or from the government," he said. "So we need to keep calling for a ceasefire, a political solution." (Editing by Tom Heneghan)