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As temperatures soar and taps run dry in war-ravaged Aleppo, UN warns of looming 'catastrophe'

9 August 2016 – As the United Nations relief wing warned today that soaring temperatures and dwindling medical supplies are deepening the woes of some two million people trapped by fighting in and around Aleppo, the world body kept up its call for an immediate halt to the hostilities and, at a minimum, a two-day weekly humanitarian pause so the city's heavily damaged water and electrical systems can be repaired.

Immediately following his closed-door briefing to the Security Council on the "horrific" humanitarian situation in Aleppo, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien told reporters that the fighting is "raging" in Syria's second city where two million people are now living in fear of besiegement.

"I told the Council that we must all be gravely concerned for the safety, health and protection of those terrified civilians. They are counting on us to deliver assistance and end their suffering," he stressed, pointing out that meanwhile, the targeting of hospitals and clinics continues unabated, seriously jeopardizing the health and welfare of all citizens.

Mr. O'Brien, who is also the Under-Secretary-General for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said he had also told the Council that attacks this week have also severely damaged the city's electric and water infrastructure, leaving more than two million residents without electricity or access to the public water network. The water supply that is available through wells and tanks is not nearly enough to sustain the needs of the population.

"The networks must be immediately repaired," he said, warning also that children in particular are at risk of waterborne diseases, especially during the soaring summer temperatures. Food and medicine stocks are running dangerously low.

"I reminded the Security Council that the United Nations agencies and our partners remain ready to assist the civilian population across Aleppo. We have supplies ready to roll: food rations, hospital supplies, ambulances, fuel for generators, water supplies and more," explained Mr. O'Brien, adding that the UN and its partners would continue to use all available routes and mechanisms in that regard, including cross-line and cross-border operations from Turkey.

"We can deliver these within 24-48 hours if we have safe access," he emphasized, reiterating his call for a fully-fledged ceasefire or weekly 48-hour humanitarian pauses – as a minimum – to reach millions of people in need, "safely, unimpeded and without further delay."

Stressing that he had once again asked Council members to do everything they can to help facilitate humanitarian access, he said: "Fighting must stop everywhere. People, are suffering across the country, in Menbij, eastern Ghouta, Dara'a, to name but a few. Politics must be put aside. We must do our duty as fellow human beings, through the privilege we have of serving people under the United Nations flag, to help all those who are now in dire straits."

In a news release, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) echoed the relief chief's call for a humanitarian pause, saying that while aid agencies are scaling up the emergency response to bring safe drinking water to civilians in the city, urgent repairs to electricity infrastructure are critical as pumping water is the only way to meet the needs of the city's two million residents. Unless water pumping is restored in the coming days civilians will be forced to resort to unsafe water sources.

"Children and families in Aleppo are facing a catastrophic situation. These cuts are coming amid a heat wave, putting children at a grave risk of waterborne diseases," said Hanaa Singer, UNICEF Representative in Syria. "Getting clean water running again cannot wait for the fighting to stop. Children's lives are in serious danger," she added.

Meanwhile in Geneva, Tarik Jašarevic, spokesperson for the UN World Health Organization (WHO), added that the agency's regional office reporters that according to eastern Aleppo City local health authorities, eight out of 10 hospitals and 13 out of 28 primary healthcare centres are now partially functional or completely out of service as a result of the fighting.

"At least six healthcare workers have been killed in Aleppo city in 2016, decreasing a shrinking number of available health professionals. For every one doctor killed or who left, at least 40 Syrians were deprived of medical care every day," he continued, adding that there were also reports of doctors working so hard that they themselves had cardiac arrests and could not be saved.

As a part of the immediate response to the needs in the western part of the city, before the main access had been cut off on 6 August, WHO delivered 92 tons of medical supplies; eight trucks of life saving and life sustaining medical supplies had been brought to the Al Razi Hospital and the Aleppo University Hospital. Another 36 tons have been prepositioned for immediate response to east Aleppo once access was granted.

He added that on 6 August, a mobile clinic had been hit in Aleppo. This clinic could care for 3,000 patients per month. Supported by WHO, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UNICEF and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), it had been operated by Al-Ihsan Charity and was on duty at the time of the attack. Five civilians were killed and the medical staff that had been injured are now in stable condition.

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