As the Syrian rainfall dwindles to its lowest annual point in July and power outages halt piped water supplies to Aleppo, Syria may be facing an unprecedented rise in waterborne disease, according to a study done by the WHO and UNICEF.
The July power outages in Aleppo are symptomatic of a Syrian public infrastructure in steady decline. Since 2011, Syrian public water systems and health initiatives have been deteriorating through negligence and damage due to the combat efforts of the civil war.
With this drop in facilities has come a spike in waterborne disease, especially in children. In 2013, rates of hepatitis A increased by 219 percent in only five months. A similar increase in typhoid was also noted in the same time period.
2015 has shown little improvement. In the first half of this year alone, Syria registered 105,886 cases of acute diarrhea, many of them in young children. The WHO estimates that this figure will only increase as the arid summer months force more Syrians to turn to contaminated water sources in lieu of dwindling reservoirs.
“We are anticipating a number of public health risks from water-borne diseases, specifically hepatitis, typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Given the scale of population movement both inside Syria and across borders, together with deteriorating environmental health conditions, outbreaks are inevitable,” said Dr. Jaouad Mahjour, the WHO director of the Department for Communicable Diseases.
Before the Arab Spring, Syrian water consumption ranked high for the Middle East, with a per capita consumption of 300 cubic meters, yet this still fell disastrously short of the global water scarcity mark of 1,000 cubic meters per capita. This figure has only decreased as Syria’s civil war shifts into a “water war” in which rebel groups have seized control of some of Syria’s most important water (and water-generated power) sources.
This was the case at Lake Assad in 2014, a reservoir that was used to supply drinking water to five million Syrians. When the Islamist State Group seized control of the Euphrates Dam in al-Tabqa, which uses water levels and current to generate electricity, the rate of water flow from the Euphrates into reservoirs like Lake Assad (where the water can be filtered) was nearly halved. While the Syrian government had previously abandoned the power generating capacity of the dam to ensure consistent water levels at the reservoir, the Islamic State group disregarded this caution and began to operate the damn at unprecedented levels.
“[Lake Assad] is pumping out more than it is receiving,” said Syrian engineer Waleed Zayat to Al-Jazeera. “This is because the electricity generators are working 24 hours a day…normally we should not use more than four or five hours per day. But for the last month and a half they have been using eight at full.”
It is estimated that 15 million Syrians depend on these standing water infrastructures, which are being rapidly depleted by imprudent usage. When water pumping in Deir-ez-sour, a province on the Iraqi border, dropped by 90 percent, many were forcibly turned to the Euphrates river itself to keep from death by dehydration.
Instead, they choose to risk death by bacterial infection. This river now serves a dual purpose as a raw sewage dumping center, and only accessible source of water for the residents of Deir-ez-sour.
The public health risks to drinking water contaminated with untreated sewage are astronomical and often result in the contraction of a number of bacterial and infections including dysentery and typhoid, both of which can come from drinking water contaminated with raw sewage.
With thousands of Syrians crossing borders everyday to escape this, it will not be long before these diseases are no longer a Syrian public health problem, but a regional concern for the Middle East. Cases of measles, tuberculosis and cutaneous leishmaniasis have already been reported ton Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
In the face of a budding global health crisis, Dr. Major of WHO is calling for vast restructuring of water systems, filtering efforts and disease detection and prevention techniques. “The situation will deteriorate if prevention and control efforts are not scaled up soon,” warned Dr. Major.
– Emma Betuel
Sources: Reliefweb, BBC, Al Jazeera, UNICEF, Irin News