Syria’s water crisis culminates in cholera outbreak

A woman with cholera is treated at Al-Kasrah hospital in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on September 17, 2022. Photo: VCG

In a Syrian hospital crowded with crying women and children, Ahmad al-Mohammad writhed in pain next to his wife after contracting cholera, which reappeared for the first time in years.

During his six days of treatment, Mohammad watched patients flock to Al-Kasrah hospital in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where the heavily polluted Euphrates River is a major source of contaminated water used both for drinking and for irrigation.

“We suffered from diarrhoea, vomiting and pain (…) because we drink directly from the Euphrates,” the 45-year-old man told AFP from hospital, barely able to speak.

“The waters of the Euphrates are polluted but we have no other choice.”

Cholera is usually contracted from contaminated food or water and spreads in residential areas that lack proper sewage systems or main drinking water.

The disease is making its first big comeback since 2009 in Syria, where nearly two-thirds of sewage treatment plants, half of pumping stations and a third of water towers have been damaged by more than a decade of war, according to the UN. .

The Syrian government has announced 23 deaths and more than 250 cases of cholera in six of the country’s 14 provinces since the outbreak began in September, with most cases concentrated in the northern province of Aleppo.

The semi-autonomous Kurdish administration that runs northeastern Syria and parts of Deir Ezzor has recorded 16 deaths and 78 cases in areas under its control, including 43 cases in western Deir Ezzor, it said on Wednesday. health official Juan Mustafa to the press.

He said Euphrates water tests proved the presence of cholera-causing bacteria – a spread he says was caused by reduced water flow.

River pollution

Said to once flow through the biblical Garden of Eden, the Euphrates stretches nearly 2,800 kilometers through Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

In times of rain, it offered plentiful supplies, gushing into northern Syria across the Turkish border and flowing diagonally across the war-torn country towards Iraq.

But drought and rising temperatures linked to climate change have drastically reduced water levels, with the Euphrates at historic lows.

Syria’s Kurds have also accused Turkey of holding back more water than necessary in its dams.

Reduced water flow has aggravated the problem of river pollution, largely from sewage, but also from oil in oil-rich areas, including Deir Ezzor.

Despite the contamination, more than 5 million of Syria’s approximately 18 million people depend on the Euphrates for their drinking water, according to the UN.

This aerial view shows part of the Euphrates on September 17, 2022, a major source of contaminated water used for both drinking and irrigation, near the city of Al-Kasrah in Deir Ezzor province , in eastern Syria.  Photo: CGV

This aerial view shows part of the Euphrates on September 17, 2022, a major source of contaminated water used for both drinking and irrigation, near the city of Al-Kasrah in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in Syria. Photo: CGV

The cost of this addiction was visible at Al-Kasrah hospital, where a man gently cradled his baby, an intravenous tube piercing the child’s tiny hand.

Hospital director Tarek Alaeddine said the facility admits dozens of suspected cholera cases every day and has tallied hundreds of cases in the past three weeks.

“The patients were all drinking clean water delivered by trucks that extracted it directly from the Euphrates, without filtering or sterilization,” Alaeddine said.

“We call on all international organizations working on health and the environment to act quickly and urgently.”

“We must live”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said earlier in September that the disease had spread to western parts of Deir Ezzor after local authorities stopped distributing chlorine to pumping stations of water.

The Kurdish administration, which controls parts of Deir Ezzor, including Al-Kasrah, said it resumed distribution after the outbreak.

They also announced assistance to Al-Kasrah and other medical facilities in the region to help contain the number of cases.

But the main source of the problem remains largely unresolved.

Farmer Ahmad Suleiman al-Rashid, 55, said he irrigated his cotton, okra, spinach and sesame fields with water from the Euphrates, which caused crop contamination.

“There are no water filter stations…we drink unsterilized, unchlorinated water and rely on God to protect us,” he said.

“What else can we do?”

As he spoke, a rusty truck was pumping water from the green, murky Euphrates.

Meanwhile, irrigation pipes sucked water from the river, letting what appeared to be oil spill onto the land.

“We know the water is polluted…but we drink it anyway,” Rashid said. “We have no other choice.”

Nearby, a young boy splashed river water on his face to cool off in the summer heat while Sobha Hamid Ali, 60, sat in the shade cleaning spinach leaves.

She too is aware of the dangers but says there is not much she can do.

“We are forced to eat contaminated vegetables,” Ali said in a soft voice. “We have to live after all.”

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