Water Contamination in Rural Damascus
Iqtisadi- Fadi Al Alloush
100 years ago the cholera epidemic swept through the homes of residents in Damascus, taking with it thousands of lives. The potable water was contaminated with the city’s sewage in the network of streams carved in the ancient city of Damascus. Polluted water remains a great cause of concern. In 2008, health centers and laboratories diagnosed Jaundice which affected 700 patients, mostly children living in “Kitna”, in the rural parts of Damascus. Father Fadi Haddad, Priest at the “Prophet Elias” Church puts the blame on the “Public Institution for Drinking Water” after his two sons, Antoine and Joseph, contracted Hepatitis (A) from drinking infected potable water. Joseph who is only 9 recalls what happened to him and his classmates at school one day, “when some of them became yellow in the face, lost consciousness, and vomited”. He also remembers that doctors had to “monitor his case for two months while he underwent tests every Saturday”. Joseph was still better off than his brother Antoine who had to be put in isolation at the hospital and conform to bed rest. Three of Rama Jabour’s sisters were diagnosed with Jaundice after drinking water from the faucet in their home. The family has placed a piece of cloth on the faucet in the hope that this will help filter the water and prevent any reoccurrences of further illness. “Even after my sisters were cured, we still worry that it will happen again.” said Rama.
Pointing the finger at “Kitna”
The “Economist” investigated the quality of water network in “Kitna” and found that the total count of bacterial colonies was 400 colonies for every 100mg of water. This is double the standardized measurement accepted in Syria. In a letter to the Ministry of Education dated February 17th, 2008, the Directorate of Education in rural Damascus stated that “the main reason for the spread of disease in rural Damascus, (mostly among students) was due to contaminated water caused by poor sanitation systems in “Kitna” and called on the City Council of Kitna to take full responsibility in finding a solution to this problem”. After taking samples from residents in “Kitna”, Dr. Hussam Al Lobani, a Laboratory Specialist diagnosed 300 cases of Hepatitis (A), and said that “contaminated drinking water is the main cause for the spread of Hepatitis (A) which cannot be cured completely, as it breaks down the main functions of the liver” added Dr. Lobani. According to Dr. Mahmoud Karim, Director of Chronic Diseases at the Ministry of Health, Kitna’s potable water system is worn out and prone to leakages and penetration from sewage water. He added that “300 cases were reported after contracting the disease from one another either by drinking the contaminated water, kissing or sharing food”. After the Economist analyzed the source of the spring in “Kitna” where 150 thousand people live, it showed that “the water has a high concentration of harmful bacteria and therefore is not safe to drink”. The water samples which were taken from Kitna’s spring also confirmed evidence of carcinogen substances found in the water. The levels of these substances surpass the current standard recommended by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA). According to this reporter, residents of Kitna resort to using the spring when water is scarce, and potable water is disconnected from their homes. However, the spring is exposed to contamination from the leakage of 150 domestic sewage pits.
42 people fall victim to Diarrhea in 2007
In 2008, cases of diarrhea, listed among other communicable diseases by the Ministry of Health, increased from 43286 cases in 2007 to 46192 in 2008. According to Dr. Rustum Jaffar, from the Department of Environmental Health, these numbers only represent the cases registered at governmental health centers. An equivalent number of cases were also reported at private health facilities. In 2007, as a result of drinking contaminated water, a total of 42 people died from severe diarrhea. Reports have also shown a rise in the number of patients diagnosed with viral hepatitis in the rural parts of Damascus from 218 registered in 2007 to 382 in 2008 where 75% of the cases diagnosed as Hepatitis (A). A source from the state-run Doma Specialized Hospital points out that most of the cases seen at the hospital were those suffering from diarrhea and Hepatitis (A) and that these patients come from the rural parts of Damascus namely Doma and surrounding neighborhoods. Associate Director of Environmental and Chronic Diseases in the Ministry of Health Dr. Hani Laham assures that these cases developed as a result of drinking polluted water.
From bad to worse
The rural parts of Damascus are connected by a water system of 4000km in length, and until July 2008, approximately 2,700,000 people benefited from its water supply. The natural water system has two main sources, common wells, and natural springs. However, both sources have turned from bad to worse with the collection of harmful bacteria and chemical components found in the water, causing a great health threat. Dr. Karim stated that the infected water is “mainly caused by human waste, garbage, and pollutants from the chemical fertilizers used on agricultural land as well as organic pollutants”. Over the years, the metallic water pipes corrode causing parts of the pipeline to become liable to contamination. Mr. Abed Nasser Saad, General Manager of the General Institution for Drinking Water and Sanitation in rural areas of Damascus confirmed that the Institution has worked on renovating more than 30 networks. However, this requires billions of Syrian Pounds and the funding available can only support 11% of the whole project. The Head of Doma’s Water Unit, Mr. Aziz Wiqaf, stated that the water network in the urban area of Damascus was replaced in 2002. The main source of the problem in the rural areas dates back to when the water distribution network was originally installed to fit the capacity of the city. However, without urban planning, the city has grown over the years and it is now very difficult to uproot the network. Therefore the water pumped through the network from the wells continues to feed this old pipeline and the households surrounding it. The network cannot be replaced easily because the wells are located underneath the unorganized communities, according to Wiqaf. The recommended life span of the metallic water pipes is 15 years. However, some of the pipes in Doma date back to the 1960’s during the Union of Egypt and Syria.
The main problem faced by these old pipes is when “the sewage water leaks into the potable water when it is subjected to pressure from trucks driving over the pipes causing breakage and leakages in the water system” explained Wiqaf.Exposure to Nitrate increases the risk of Carcinogen
Exposure to Nitrate increases the risk of Carcinogen
The governorate of rural Damascus constitutes 28 cities and 180 villages over an area of 18,000 Kilometer-squared and a population of 2.487 million people according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. In 2008, the Ministry of Housing and Construction issued a study which found High concentrations of nitrate, exceeding the recommended limit in potable water starting from the east of the city. The ratio began with over 200mg/Litre, and reached 228mg/Litre in wells in “AlShifonia” and “Doma” and surrounding areas”. The main cause of this increase in nitrate is because the wells become contaminated by leaking of nitrate generated from organic fertilizers used in agricultural lands and waste dumps. Because of this contamination in the water and increased chemical pollution, nitrate levels are highest in eastern neighborhoods namely Doma, Harseta, Jarmana and Lady Zainab. Another study conducted by the Ministry of Housing and Utilities in 2004 revealed that: “The concentration of nitrate in potable water can cause a health threat especially in infants and pregnant women”. The Ministry of Health states that the increase of nitrate can increase the possibility of developing cancer in humans because of the formation of nitrogen compounds, which is also considered to cause cancer in animals as well. Furthermore, exposure to high concentrations of nitrate can accelerate the rate of formation of Methemoglobinemia (Met-Hemoglobin), and result in developing anemia. Methemoglobin is a form of hemoglobin that does not bind oxygen. This disease can be genetic or caused by exposure to chemicals such as nitrate and therefore cause a huge health threat to the population. Infants under 3 months of age are particularly susceptible to methemoglobinemia and can develop the “Blue Baby” syndrome resulting in decreased oxygen carrying capacity of hemoglobin in babies leading to death. Reem Abd Rabu, Director of Water Safety in the Ministry of Environment stated that many studies have shown an increase in the levels of nitrate or ammonia found in potable water. In cooperation with the UN, Ms. Abd Rabu conducted a study in two pilot locations, Al Rihan and Hosh, found that the water surrounding these two areas had high concentrations of nitrate. Ms. Abd Rabu explained that the only way to reduce the levels of nitrate is to install a desalination plant to purify the potable water. Ms. Abu Rabu is referring to the project currently underway in between the Ministry of Housing and Utilities and Malaysian desalination plants.
Common Wells do not follow Quality Guidelines
According to the General Institution of Drinking Water 342 out of 2100 common wells in Damascus did not follow quality guidelines set out by the Syrian authorities because most wells showed high levels of nitrate, including the well in Doma. The level of nitrate found in Doma was 200mg/Litre, which is 4 times higher than the recommended guidelines defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) which determined that the concentration of nitrate in drinking water should not exceed 45mg/Litre. In 2004, Intisar Mardini, a chemist by profession, led a team to analyze the quality of water in wells in rural Damascus. She recommends that the water should be analyzed constantly in order to monitor the level of nitrate. Mardini emphasized that the most vulnerable to the effect of nitrate are infants, pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding as well as the elderly. Between 2002 and 2004 several samples were taken from wells in rural Damascus and the Laboratories at the Ministry sent back results showing that the concentration of nitrate exceeded the concentration guideline recommended by WHO. The increase of nitrate levels began in 2002 and continued to rise in 2003 following extreme rainfall, which resulted in the rise of water levels in the wells and thus exposure to contamination as a result of mixing with dirty surface water that carried various pollutants, including the nitrogenous material. Despite the decrease of pollution in some wells, the average rate of nitrate remained high in Doma. Therefore between October 17, 2006, and December 17, 2008, the General Institution for Drinking Water in rural Damascus conducted an analysis on samples from the water from 8 different wells: in Doma, Harsata, Maliha, AlNashabieh, Al Shifonieh, Jarmana, Damir and Arbain. The tests revealed a decrease of nitrate levels three out of eight wells. Doma, however, still had a high concentration of nitrate as did Al Shifonieh with nitrate levels reaching 180-210 mg/Litre.
Inhabitants no longer drink water from the potable system
The Public Institution for Drinking Water promises inhabitants that the water it pumps through the network is clean drinking water. Despite these assurances, the majority of the residents no longer drink water from the tap. According to a survey conducted by the Economist on 150 families located in Lady Zainab, Jarmana and Harsata, 76% of the families do not drink from the tap connected to their homes. The reason being, that they have lost confidence in the potable water system as well as the fact that the water is not free from limestone and high levels of chlorine. The survey showed that those who drank from the tap did not actually have any other choice. According to WHO, half of the world’s population suffer from diseases contracted from contaminated water, with 2 billion people suffering from Diarrhea alone. Contaminated water causes 80% of diseases and one-third of all deaths in developing countries according to the UN Earth Summit held in Rio de Jeneiro in 1992.
No more Chlorine
A visit by this reporter of wells that pump potable water in Hursata showed that chlorine was not added to the piped water to disinfect it. Most inhabitants in rural Damascus buy water from street dwellers who are licensed by the Public Institution for Drinking Water. However, this hasn’t solved the infected water problem. Head of the water Unit in Doma, Mr. Aziz Wiqaf said that in 2008, in Doma alone, 20 water trucks were confiscated by the Institution because the dwellers did not use chlorine to disinfect the water. Most inhabitants have resulted to using a purification system (filter) in their homes to avoid contamination of drinking water. This is what Father Fadi Haddad did after both his sons were diagnosed with Jaundice. But will this really solve the problem? At a time when many residents remain hostage to drinking from contaminated networks that lack a purification system and remain susceptible to chemical and biological pollutants.
This report was sponsored by Arab Reporters for Investigative Research (ARIJ) –www.arij.net – under the supervision of ARIJ coach Hamoud Al-Mahmoud.