Tartous, Syria – Twenty years ago, Abu Ahmad used to drink directly from the Al Sinn spring, which was a set example for pure and cold water in Syria and served as a touristic attraction for local visitors.
Nowadays, the once famed fresh water spring is nothing but a source of infection.
Today, any person who drinks directly from this spring, the main source of potable water for 825,000 residents in Latakia, Tartus and Banias, is prone to catching dermatitis, enteritis and urinary tract infections due to the high amount of contaminants which stand three fold the acceptable proportion in Syria.
This current situation is caused by contamination from 1000 leaking septic tanks, each 1.5 m tall and wide. These tanks were constructed in the rocks of the region by residents due to the absence of sewage networks and local stations for treating wastewater. The water in these septic tanks is leaking through holes and canals to groundwater levels through the reliefs of the area of a Callovian Jurassic nature. The sewage is mixing with other contaminants such as agricultural chemicals, thus polluting the source of groundwater supplying the spring which provides drinking water to around 625,000 citizens in Latakia and 200,000 in Tartus, in addition to the inhabitants of 325 villages in the coastal area of Syria; considered to be among the most water abundant areas in Syria, according to the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources.
In addition, municipalities are dumping waste drainage in the path of the river. This water is seeping through the ground’s fracture cleavage, making it inevitable for contaminants to reach the spring, according to the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources. These reports match the findings of this reporter, who has inspected the area.
The Al Sinn spring is formed by several highly abundant springs.The water of Al Sinn is pumped into a natural reservoir at the bottom of a mountain overlooking the spring and the Tartous region. Then the water is pumped into the main water reservoirs which feed Latakia, Tartus and 325 villages and residential areas through lines of 40 km in both directions.
According to engineer Tamim Ali, head of water quality control service of the Al Sinn spring, the first line is directed towards human use, to Tartus. The water is pumped directly from the spring, with no treatment or filtering like the water of the Al Faija spring supplying Damascus.
Furthermore, engineer Ali confirms that the situation in Latakia is worse. Its problem lies in the fact that it takes water from the open air lake exposed and susceptible to air contamination in addition to sewage. The water goes from the lake to a sand basin then a gravel basin, then Chloride is added and the water is pumped to the pipes. Chloride is still being used, although international studies recently started to warn against the negative effects of Chloride on human health, and most countries have replaced it with the harmless ozone substance, as Dr. Ayman Badawi confirms.
The problem is further exacerbated as conflict for liability arises between municipalities that admit they do not have the necessary budget to build sewage networks and the water and sanitation company similarly acknowledge the ominous situation. However, both have not showed any effort to redress the situation so far, in addition to the ignorance or the powerlessness of citizens.
“Although we are aware the negative effects that septic tanks have on groundwater, yet we don’t have any chice other than drilling septic tanks because of the absence of proper drainage networks”, says Ahmad Muhammad, living with his family in Karfiss, a village situated over the Al Sinn spring .
The number of septic tanks has doubled in the last ten years and there are no sewage networks. The fresh spring water is bearing all these consequences.
Many inhabitants ignore the need to clean these septic tanks, causing seepages into the soil. In other cases, citizens have to close the septic tanks when they are full because they don’t have the financial means to rent tankers for their suction or cleaning. This further causes unpleasant odors and multiplication of insects.
In order to track the contaminants present in the spring, culture tests were conducted by Syrianews. Results confirmed the presence of several bacteria (E.coli- Staphylococcus- Entercoccus- Bactrobacillus) that are not supposed to be present there, according to the international standards of potable water. The high concentration of bacteria present in sewage water further inflicts harm, says the head of the potable water quality control at the Ministry of Water.
Under the supervision of the Ministry of Local Affairs and the Environment, an international report on water in Syria (2005/2006) confirmed the presence of cauliform contamination (from feces of living organisms), bacteria and minerals in groundwater. Furthermore, the report stated that the groundwater exhibits a high concentration of bacteria, nitric acid salts and agricultural chemicals.
The government has accepted these facts and asked the General Department for Remote Sensing in 2007 to start a project to protect the Al Sinn water from these pollutants and to eradicate the present pollution within two years. However, until this day, none of the above mentioned plans have actually materialized.
On Dec. 28, 2008, the project was shelved, merely with recommendations on how to solve the entire sewage issue which is contaminating the groundwater.
For her Master’s Thesis at” Teshrin” University, engineer Neema Charif conducted a study on Al Sinn fresh water spring at the laboratories of the state-run “Teshrin” university. The results were confirmed by Dr.Adel Awad, head of environmental engineering department at the university. The present concentration of Ammonium compounds reached 0.18 per mg, whereas nitrates reached 22.8 and nitrites 0.08. These numbers exceed the allowed amounts according to the Syrian standards of potable water which sets the Ammonium, Nitrates and Nitrite concentration at 0.05 per mg, 10 per mg, and 0.01 per mg respectively. According to pharmacologist Ayman Badawi, any increase in these concentrations leads to cancers and renal insufficiency. He also affirmed that 80% of the residents of the coastal area in Syria who drink from the Al Sinn spring are infected with the E-coli bacteria present in sewage, indicating that the potable water is contaminated with sewage waste.
Further analysis has been carried out on the ten wells that supply the Al Sinn spring. In the Belgonius well, 2100 pathogen species per 100 mg were identified. As for the Sindiani well, 197 species were detected and 58 in the Dalia well. This contrasts sharply with Syrian standards that are set at 0 per 100 mg. These are colon bacteria that infect the gastrointestinal system causing diarrhea.
Dr. Awad explains that the oxygen consumption is one of the most important and common indicators to specify the amount of water pollution with organic substances in general. As a result of the increase in concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen, the quantity of algae and seaweed simultaneously increases, leading to a Eutrophication
process which is not normal in nature since it consumes oxygen in potable water and leads to “hardening of water”.
The Al Sinn spring ranks third in terms of Eutrophication, well below international standards which ranks second class as “acceptable” and first class as “the best”.
The thesis that was presented by engineer Charif concluded that the water of the springs and wells in Al Sinn is not potable from the chemical point of view because of a high concentration of Nitrate, Nitrite and Ammonium, in addition to high bacteria concentration.
Recalling an incident which happened on a clear August day in 2007, Ibrahim, a grass sweeper recalls how he was forced to walk in the lake’s water to fix the machine after it snapped. “By the end of the day, I found my entire body covered with big red spots.”
According to the doctor who treated Ibrahim, these spots were dermatitis resulting from contaminants present in the water due to sewage leaking from the septic tanks in the regions surrounding the spring.
This reporter wasn’t any luckier than Mr. Fateh. After drinking water from the spring, he had a series of urinary tract infections accompanied by severe arthralgias in the knees and the lower back. Urine culture confirmed that he was infected with e-coli, a common pathogen in sewage, according to doctor Ahmad Joni.
Lawyer Abd El Karim recalls what happened in the nearby region of Harisoun in 2007. Around 50 cases of diarrhea, especially amongst the children, were registered in one week. Two of the children were his relatives. The percentage was a turning point as the village health clinics never witnessed such cases before.
The infirmary also admitted another ten cases in February 2008, to bring the cases up to 60 cases. According to Abd El Karim, this number does not include the cases of those who went to private clinics.
The physical exam carried out by doctor Kamal Tajour at the Harisoun infirmery that the above mentioned are enteritis cases due to polluted water, knowing that the only source of potable water is the Al Sinn spring.
Dr. Faten Jeblawi, head of the department of environmental diseases at the local health directorate assures that there is a rise in the index chart of diseases resulting from contaminated water of sewage residues. In Latakia, home to 600,000 residents who drink from the Al Sinn spring, 9174 cases of diarrhea (with and without blood) were admitted to hospitals and governmental medical centers in 2004. In 2005, the number rose to 12953, and in 2006 to 13404 and to 1400 from beginning of 2008 to October of the same year. According to sources from the department of chronic and environmental diseases department, there has been a significant rise in the incidence of diarrhea. Typhoid is also caused by water contaminated with sewage, and statistics recorded around 300 infections during the past five years in addition to two malaria infections in 2007, in comparison with the pre-2004 period.
Dr. Rou’a, from the pediatrics department in Al Assad university hospital in Latakia assured that there are many patients suffering from diarrhea that are admitted to the hospital. They complain from profuse diarrhea and enteritis causing severe dehydration that is life threatening for the pediatric age group. She adds that the hospital doesn’t keep medical records.
Whilst conducting fieldwork for this investigation, this reporter detected some new cases of diarrhea in the city of Banias and Jabla during November 2008. Mrs Abd El Karim got infected with severe gastroenteritis which could have claimed her life. After three medical consultations in the city of Jabla at the hands of Dr. Mounzer Al Chighri, an internist and a gastroenterologist, it was confirmed that she had been infected with the parasite amoeba usually present in polluted water. After her health condition deteriorated, she was transferred to a Damascus hospital. Last year, she suffered from the same condition, according to Dr. Jamal Al Wadi, a Damascus-based internist and gastroenterologist. The diagnosis was severe enteritis from polluted water, taking her a full month to recover.
In Banias, Mr. Doreid Kassem assures that his daughter had also severe infections necessitating hospitalization for the same reason. Doctors at the local hospital have confirmed that hundreds of other patients have been admitted to hospital during the same period.
Dr. Samer Ahmad, head of the sanitation company in Latakia, confirmed that the Ministry of Public Works and Housing announced in 2000 plans to set up water treatment plants within the next two to three years.
However, due to the lack of national expertise in planning and execution and because of the presence of stone queries in the area, the execution of the plans was delayed. According to Dr. Ahmad, this has led the citizens to rely on septic tanks for sewage, henceforth the widespread use of septic tanks with no consideration of its negative effects on the susceptible groundwater.
The plan is to construct 68 collection points for nearly 200 villages in the suburbs of Latakia and Tartus, home to 400,000, in addition to 45 wastewater treatment plants. The estimated daily amount of sewage from residents is nearly 85000 m3for the Syrian coast according to the Institute of Sanitation and Municipalities.
According to engineer Tamim Ali from Water Resources, some municipalities in the region such as Al Birjan, Al Qtailbiya, Bahzit, Al Raksha, Al Raoush, and Betmana rely on the construction of sewage networks that let their water out to the valleys of rivers and rivers themselves. This water mixes with the groundwater that feeds the spring, as seen by this reporter.
Dr. Hussein Jneidi, form the Institute of Environmental Research at Tishreen University, confirms that the particles of pollutants in this water enter the red blood cells dislodging the hemoglobin and taking its place. This can cause serious breath shortness among infants between one day and six months old. Pregnant and lactating females can suffer from periorbital cyanosis. As for the adults above 20 years of age, the hemoglobin is not affected by the particles, but the problem is that the particles enter with other cells causing cancers, most common of which is gastrointestinal cancers.
According to the Ministry of Health, gastrointestinal cancers have the highest incidence in the Syrian coast as compared to other Syrian regions, home to other malignancies. For example, Damascus and its suburbs have the highest incidence for lung cancer. The Northern region and the AlJazeera area have the highest incidence for breast cancer.
Studies link these facts to the nature of the contamination in these three regions.
Dr. Muhammed Yussef, head of medicine in the Al Assad University Hospital, told a conference in 2007 that the high rate of gastrointestinal cancers in the coast is linked to the environmental pollution, especially water contamination.
This investigation was supported by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (www.arij.net) and supervised by coach Ali Hassoun.