Water woes in Syrian camps concern Lebanese officials

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Sewage water leaks into the informal refugee camp of Marj al-Khokh in Jdeidet Marjayoun in southern Lebanon. [Nohad Topalian/Al-Mashareq]

Sewage water leaks into the informal refugee camp of Marj al-Khokh in Jdeidet Marjayoun in southern Lebanon. [Nohad Topalian/Al-Mashareq]

Lebanese communities hosting Syrian refugees have identified water pollution, sewage and waste management-related problems among their major challenges.

Health problems caused by contaminated water are a growing concern, local officials said, with municipalities hosting refugees in urgent need of sewage networks and water treatment plants capable of meeting the additional capacity.

Due to the critical nature of these problems, international organisations working with Syrian refugees have redoubled their precautionary health measures in the formal and informal camps to prevent the spread of disease.

But the underlying problem -- seepage of brackish water into irrigation water and groundwater -- must be addressed, they told Al-Mashareq.

Refugees strain infrastructure

Towns struggling with this problem include the Bekaa Valley towns of Arsal and Qab Elias near the border with Syria.

Arsal, which hosts close to 100,000 refugees, raised its voice when the sewage problem started threatening groundwater sources, as a result of the discharge of sewage from 21 tankers per day in its highest eastern hills.

Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Moein al-Merehbi and UN Resident Co-ordinator Philippe Lazzarini toured the town on February 19th, with Lazzarini announcing that several engineering studies were being conducted to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the town of Qab Elias is hosting the equivalent of its population, or about 40,000 refugees, municipal chief Jihad Moallem told Al-Mashareq.

The town "is very concerned about the possible contamination of its surface and groundwater due to the intrusion of brackish water, and pollution of the Litani River", he said.

"Sewage networks can no longer hold brackish water, which has begun to intrude into surface water used to irrigate crops."

The Litani River is one of Lebanon’s main water resources, supplying the Bekaa Valley and a large portion of the south.

Mouallem said he has written to the embassies of donor countries and to the Council for Development and Reconstruction to ask for help to build a water treatment plant to put an end to water contamination.

On May 19th, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced at a meeting of the ministerial committee in charge of monitoring Litani River pollution and creating a cleanup plan, that the river is "one of my priorities".

Protecting public health

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has developed a response plan to stem the spread of any epidemic or disease in co-ordination with the Ministry of Public Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"The UNHCR is ready for any contingency," UNHCR public information officer Lisa Abou Khaled told Al-Mashareq. "We and UNICEF are providing the refugee camps with clean water for drinking and personal use on a regular basis."

"We conduct regular tests of the water to ensure that it is free of germs and maintain strict control over sanitation and cleanliness to eliminate the possibility of the spread of diseases," she said.

The spread of cholera -- an infectious disease that can be contracted from contaminated water -- in regional countries like Yemen underscores the importance of clean water and the need for a contingency plan in Lebanon.

The Ministry of Public Health has a plan in place to address a potential cholera epidemic that was prepared years ago in co-operation with the WHO and is still in effect, said ministry Preventive Medicine Department head Dr. Atika Berri.

As for the formal and informal Syrian refugee camps, "we and international organisations are stressing the need to ensure [refugees] are provided with clean and safe water for drinking and personal use", she said.

Two years ago, the ministry, in co-operation with water authorities and the municipalities, started to periodically distribute chlorine pills to be placed in water tanks whose water is distributed to residences, Berri said.

"The ministry is taking precautionary measures not only for cholera, but also Hepatitis A, whose symptoms become prevalent among refugees at the beginning of each summer because of water contamination," she added.

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