By Farouk Kamali
Sana’a, Yemen, May 2015 – (Alaraby al Jadid) – A young Yemeni man starts counting the names of victims in his village who have suffered kidney failure or died while drinking from underground water contaminated by human and animal remains as well as pesticides.
Mohammad al-Sharabi says his father resumed weekly kidney dialysis sessions after undergoing an unsuccessful kidney transplant at Al Thawra Hospital in Sana’a. His son donated one of his two kidneys after undergoing a tissue compatibility test.
This is just a tiny aspect of a rather gloomy side of life in “Shar’aab al-Salam” village, in the countryside of Taa’iz, a governorate in Yemen with a population of 2,560,000 according to 2004 official statistics.
Nashwan’s family, like the rest of the 140,000 villagers, get their drinking water from tens of polluted subterranean wells. The pollution is caused by pipes connected to primitive cesspits, as this 10-month investigation has revealed. The reporter also conducted a questionnaire that showed lack of awareness among inhabitants regarding health-threatening dangers from consuming polluted water.
Three parties are responsible. The government failed to extend a network for potable water independent of that from the sewage pipeline due to the lack of a comprehensive study though it spent $3 million between 1996 and to 2012 to upgrade the water infrastructure. The villagers, abusing legal loopholes, have dug subterranean wells near inhabited areas amidst agricultural land. This is occurring despite the presence of a law regulating water matters issued in 2002 and amended in 2006. The law specifies the process of digging wells, manually or by machines. The first condition is that the wells should be dug at a distance from agricultural land. The local administrative authorities and the Ministries of Water and Irrigation are not implementing the law though they are responsible for protecting the health of citizens’ from pollution by providing drinkable water.
Article no. 40 says the Ministry has the right to stop using water in case the well or supplies of water are polluted, causing harm to public health and the environment.
The Head of Agriculture and Irrigation Sector at Shar’aab al-Salam Eng. Mahyoub Hijab says he has not received any complaints from inhabitants regarding water pollution. “Therefore, I cannot inform the administrative sector/ local authorities to take action, by applying the law and protecting the people from this polluted water.” According to Hijab, anyone has the right to complain to his office. A request form to conduct official water tests to prove that water is polluted can also be filled out. “The necessary measures would be then taken to check to protect the wells and employ the required methods for treatment of polluted waters”.
Meanwhile, the administration office did not confiscate any digging machinery nor close down any wells, according to Hijab, the only employee in the office. He complains a gap in the law which enables people to dig a well without obtaining permission in order to insure non-contaminated drinking water. “They dig wells with no consideration to their vicinity to sources of pollution. We need to avoid an armed confrontation between the local authorities and the people. This complex situation has “opened the door for all” to reject government interference on ground this is seen “as an attack on their rights.”
According to Hijab, the role of the Agriculture and Irrigation office is to present suggestions to the Local Council administrative authority on how to collect rain-water by building large mountain reservoirs or irrigation canals.
This stands in contradiction with water laws granting the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation the right to issue well digging licenses, deeper than 700 metres. The ministry should supervise subterranean water wells in regions where the Ministry of Water offices operate, which is the case in that village.
Dr. Saad al-Mahdi, former Head of Population and Health Office says he learnt about water pollution in subterranean wells while helping out a medicine university student test water samples from those wells.
Al-Mahdi has been replaced by Ibrahim al-Mikhlafi, who helped this reporter obtain samples from 4 of 140 major wells in Shar’aab al-Salam” village in Taa’iz providing water to nearby houses. The tests proved that those supplies are undrinkable as they contained a high percentage of bacteria: “E-Coli”. Al-Mikhlafi, did not report that though he was well aware of the issue.
The reporter noticed the presence of cesspools near the wells, from which the samples were taken. None had a license. In addition, the 60 meter legal depth permitted was also exceeded. Article no. 69 of the Water Regulation Laws states that anyone who contaminates water or the drainage system will be jailed for up to two years.
The punishment is doubled in case the offender commits the same act twice.
The samples were collected in June 2013 from the wells of “Duhmas”, “Zubayda”, and “Qarama”, supplying 70,000 inhabitants — half the local population in a region where the government has not extended a water network.
The tests, processed at the at lab of the Ministry of Health and Population in Taa’iz in liaison with the Health office in the region, showed that the water supplied by those wells causes diarrhea, as well as pain in the stomach and intestines since it contains bacteria that attacks the colon, according to doctors and water experts. The increased percentage (12%) of salt and chemicals, especially Calcium, Magnesium, Chlorine and bicarbonates in the sample collected, causes kidney diseases.
Who is responsible?
Al-Mikhlafi blames animal and human waste as the main reason for the pollution as it settles in the bottom wells where there are no separation walls to act as barriers. In addition, the height of the wells themselves — the opening of the well is higher than the ground — makes it difficult for rain water to get into the wells. Furthermore, pesticides also seep into the ground wells.
Al-Mikhlafi believes that the inhabitants are responsible for water pollution because they dig cesspits next to water wells without using cement that would prevent sewage from creeping into drinking water sources. This is a necessary procedure in order to obtain clean and safe drinking water, as per the standards of the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation and UNICEF.
Eng. Mahyoub Hijab, who replaced Al-Mikhlafi, criticizes some families for digging sewage wells in proximity to wells used for drinking water without referring to the authorities in order to look into the possibility of digging such wells and building the separation wall between water wells and cesspits.
A study done by the Water Resources Authority, a government body in charge of supervising the use of water, blames water pollution in Yemeni countryside on the leakage of poison, pesticides and sewage water into the drinking water.
After reading the results of the water tests, Dr. Ahmad Mansour, General Manger of the Central Health Labs in Taa’iz, says, “E-Coli bacteria is an indication of the presence of human remains in the water wells, as well as a high level of chemicals: soluble salts. This leads to poisoning as well as inflammation in the intestines and kidneys and eventually leading to renal failure.
Dr. Rajih al-Maliki, previous director at the Central Health Testing Bureau, who conducted the first lab tests of the water samples three months before the reporter’s sampling in May 2013, holds the same opinion. “There is a relationship between water pollution and inflammation in the digestive system, the kidneys and the urinary tract”.
Dr. Najib Wazi’ Abu Isba’, Head of the Kidney Implant Unit, at Al-Thawra Hospital, agrees. “Most kidney failure cases I’ve seen over the last ten years are of patients from Shar’aab al-Salam village and their problem is caused by drinking water.”
Dr. Yaser al-Siyani, Head of the Kidney Unit at Al-Thawra Hospital in Taa’iz, also links kidney failure to polluted water.
The astonishing thing is that villagers in this region have been drinking without realizing it is contaminated. The study by the university student of seven wells that supply drinking water exposed the pollution. Her tests, however, were different from the ones conducted by the reporter, which also proved that the water is polluted and not suitable for drinking.
The Health Office is Aware … But Nothing was Done!
After seeing the results of the samples, Dr. Ibrahim al-Mikhlafi, Director of the Public Health Authority, said he was unaware of the issue. He said he was first informed about the contamination when tests were conducted medical student, Zainab al-Rajahi. However, he did not inform the Public Health and Population Authority. His excuse was that “the research done by the medical student is not for public knowledge.” He justified his position saying that the Public Health and Population Authority is not the body responsible for inspecting water pollution. According to him, the Authority’s responsibility is limited to “supervising health units and clinics in the governorate, and checking necessary medical utensils and medicines.”
The reporter surveyed 30 local inhabitants. He discovered that while the Health Authority is fully aware of the water pollution issue, the inhabitants of this region do not.
Unawareness of Consumers
Eng. Abdo Mohammad al-Sho’bi, 55, says: “We drink water from those wells but we don’t know that it is polluted”.
Meanwhile, the majority of the inhabitants suffer from kidney inflammation and renal failure as well as diseases affecting the intestines.” He adds: “Not one home is free of chronic illnesses.”
Mokhtar al-Shoraabi, 28, talks about how women and children carry water taken from these wells in plastic containers they place on their heads or on the backs of donkeys without questioning whether it’s suitable for drinking or not.
Water Networks: On Paper Only!
He criticizes a 2006-2012 government scheme meant to supply water to that region. He says, “There’s a tank on the top of the mountain. But the water network taking water down to the houses was never completed”, though official records show that the project has been completed.
Hijab, Director of the Agriculture and Irrigation Department, said four of those projects under the overall scheme, were completed between the mid ‘80s and ‘90s. They were connected to tanks, water pumps and the water distribution network. However, not a drop of water has passed through the network as the project never saw the light as the pipes and water network were too old to function.
He believes that “those wells were never placed in the right location”. It would have been less costly if one artesian well was dug in Nakhla valley, where water supplies are abundant throughout the year, to provide water to all the villages and houses.
Such an artesian well would extend from Ibb governorate crossing the villages of Shar’aab al-Salam and Shar’aab al-Rawna towards al-Hudayda governorate, and pouring into the Red Sea.
Hijab also points out that the aim of those projects was to store rain waters in mountainous areas by building large tanks made of cement.
The reporter documented the location of government projects and the wells used for drinking. He also documented how water is being transported to their homes, namely on the backs of donkeys and by cars.
Officials at the General Water Authority attribute the failure of the Shar’aab projects to lack of field studies identifying water sources and government delays to set clear standards for digging.
In the past, the responsibility of water management has been a point of contention between the Ministries of Electricity, Water, Agriculture and Irrigation. According to Hijab, standardized regulations set by the law are not applied. Hence, people have been able to dig wells that are less than 60 meters deep, with no license. Parliament’s committee on Environment and Water stated in its January 2014 report that associations and authorities of water and sanitation in 11 governorates they visited including Taa’iz, found it sufficient to conduct one test a year to examine the quality of the source of water.
The report, submitted by the committee, states that half the 24 million Yemeni population suffer from illnesses related to water pollution. In addition, 3 million suffer from various types of inflammatory illnesses.
The Public Health and Population office – established in 2002 as per local authority laws- does not have any statistics on the number on patients of kidney and other diseases resulting from water pollution. The only figures found were at the Industrial College Centre at Al-Thawra Hospital in Taa’iz. There, the center documented 48 cases of kidney failure in Shar’ab al-Salam in the past three years. However, this does not reflect a true figure of the affected patients in the village whose livelihood depends on well water. Residents never suspected that they would be drinking polluted water coming from wells dug outside the supervision of local authorities who are responsible for the lives of citizens.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net