• Reuters

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As Syria approaches a surreal presidential election in the midst of civil war, the capital has avoided the worst of the conflict but reminders are increasingly coming out the water taps and appearing on the dinner table, to the dismay of Damascenes.

Before the war, the government of President Bashar Assad maintained tight control on food prices and quality. Distracted by war, its grip has slackened. Shady business practices have flourished, to the detriment of water and food supplies.

Rushing to the kitchen sink one day to fill up a container with water, Mayada, a Damascene, wanted to store as much water as possible. “I must hurry because sometimes the water cuts off in an hour,” she said.

“And look at all this sand. We can’t drink the water anymore without filtering it first.” She pointed to black and brown grains sinking to the bottom of her freshly filled water jug. “And God knows what else is floating in there that I can’t see.”

Residents say the quality of food is also deteriorating, coupled with price rises, especially fast-food favorites like “shawarma” and falafel as well as “farouj,” or roast chicken.

“Taste the falafel and you’ll know they add bread crumbs to it to save on chickpeas,” said Issam, a restaurateur in central Damascus. “You can easily tell the difference. Today’s ‘fake’ falafel is greasier and darker and just looks wrong all around. People eat it because it’s cheap, but everyone is complaining.”

Shawarma, cut from a giant rotating hulk of meat, is also under scrutiny. “Only God knows what meat they’re using these days. Is it even beef? All I know is it doesn’t taste the same as before,” said Lamia, 32.

As for poultry, the birds look either skinnier than usual or unusually plump but without taste, prompting many Damascenes to wonder what poultry farmers might be feeding the chickens.

“Is it hormones? Animal protein? Garbage? Sewage? We cannot know,” said Marwan, who considers himself an amateur nutritionist. “Back in the good days, poultry farmers got away with dubious practices. Now? I hate to even think about it.”

Damascenes anxiously await Tuesday’s presidential election. Assad looks certain to win, given that voting will be held only in state-controlled areas, but citizens fear it will be marked by a fierce mortar barrage from rebel-held suburbs.

The government, however, is waging a “Together, we rebuild” campaign that now peppers the capital’s streets with posters that feature hands clasped together.

Damascenes have been luckier than Syrians living in areas of the country beyond government control, bombed daily and cut off by prolonged but inconclusive army sieges.

Some 160,000 people have died in the conflict, which started in March 2011 with street protests against decades of Assad family rule but turned into an insurgency following a security crackdown on peaceful demonstrators.

Malnutrition is rampant, and doctors say children have starved to death in besieged zones.

In Damascus, people notice the small changes — daily staples soaring in price, sometimes selling at three or four times what they used to be, with the quality plummeting.

“Almost every single dairy maker these days is adding water to milk and to cheese and yogurt,” said Abu Mustafa, a dairy shop owner in the middle-class neighborhood of Mazraa.

Before the war, the authorities kept a close watch on makers of dairy produce to deter cheating and enforced fixed prices, forcing them to compete with each other based solely on quality and taste.

Now there is hardly any oversight. White Syrian cheese, a daily must-have in every household, used to sell for 250 Syrian pounds ($1.60) per kilogram. Now it varies between SP400 and SP1,300 ($2.70 and $8.70).

The outlying district of Ghouta was long one of the main food supply sources for Damascus but it has been in rebel hands for almost two years, rendering most of its produce, poultry and meat inaccessible to Damascenes.

Much of Ghouta’s farmland has also turned into danger zones as Syrian warplanes routinely bombard it and government snipers prevent farmers from tending to their crop.

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