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Water Today Title March 20, 2018

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This story is brought to you in part by Proteus Waters

Updated 2017/3/1
Water and wastewater in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq


By Ronan O'Doherty

Water issues continue to plague Syrian refugees still living in close proximity to their home country.

The civil war that has ravaged their home has seen an almost unprecedented diaspora to their neighbouring countries. It's estimated that almost 6.5 million refugees have left Syria. Five million of those are still in the Middle East and Turkey.

Omar El Hattab, UNICEF's regional adviser for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, took a few moments to discuss some of the dire problems these people and the land they live on are facing.

UNICEF is currently working within the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, also known as the 3RP with the United Nations and a host of other NGOs. This covers five regional countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. In general, their efforts focus on Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq as Turkey and Egypt's governments are carrying out the full workload for refugees within their borders.

In El Hattab's opinion, the state of the three countries UNICEF is working within is better than it has been in the last three to five years, but still quite troubling. He points out that the challenges for those struggling to eke out an existence are numerous.

"As it is, the Middle East and North Africa is the world's most water scarce region. It includes 12 of the most water scarce countries in the world. It hosts around 5 to 6% of the world's population and it gets only a measly two percent of the fresh water," he said, going on to add, "We've been witnessing serious and significant dwindling of our resources. For example, water tables in the region have dropped in the past twenty years or so, from around 200m to over 500m and this is very worrying. In the water business 500m is serious, serious business."

In Lebanon, Unicef works with over 400 informal settlements that are rented out to refugees by local landlords. El Hattab says that they're really struggling with water. "Mining of the aquifer is leading to serious repercussions that include sea water intrusion, salination, contamination of the aquifer and the leaking of the land mass," he said.

It is often necessary for water to be trucked in to the settlements at great cost. As it is so expensive, it is often only provided once a week, so people have to store it in a portable tank or a jerry can. El Hattab said, "Without proper disinfection, the water quality has been totally compromised and in many cases should not be ruled fit for human consumption."

Jordan, home to two of the largest refugee camps in the world, Zaatari and Azraq, ranks second in global water scarcity. The share of water per person has dropped across the country over the last few years by half.

Aging infrastructure is a major problem for Jordan, with much of their water being lost to the sand thanks to leaky pipes. Some estimates say that the amount of water lost annually could satisfy the basic needs of 2.6 million people, more than a third of Jordan's current population.

As for Iraq, where there are nine refugee camps in the north of the country, El Hattab sighed and said, "You know what Iraq is undergoing. There is massive scale terrorism. It's a war. It's a war zone, so it's really difficult."

Sanitation problems are going hand-in-hand with the water ones. Outbreaks of diseases flare up and are widespread in the settlements and camps. El Hattab says the most prevalent two are Hepatitis A, a viral liver disease caught through contaminated water; and cholera, a bacterial infection also caused by unsanitary living conditions, which can lead to acute diarrhoea and severe dehydration, which is the last symptom any of these refugees need.

In addition to the human crisis, an environmental one is unfolding concurrently, with waste being disposed of improperly. "We're essentially moving off the human waste into the ground and this has a very heavy price tag in the years to come. The impact will not unfold today, it will not unfold tomorrow or next year but in the long term it will be devastating," El Hattab said.

As a solution to the crisis, El Hattab and his team at UNICEF are working with local organisations to hook up the camps and settlements to municipal systems. Even that isn't proving to be effective enough, for example in Lebanon El Hattab said, " I think up to 80% of the wastewater treatment facilities are not operational or working properly," going on to add that when they are working," they're dysfunctional with more than of the waste being pumped into the sea, which obviously has a high price tag."

This is happening while a solid waste crisis is intermittently affecting Lebanon. Just last summer the situation came to a head with mountains of refuse choking the streets in the capital city of Beirut. The city's main landfill was closed down due to overcapacity, leading to mass protests. Despite the government announcing a three year plan to clear the refuse, little is being accomplished.

In Jordan, the location of the camps is really far from municipal systems. "To connect them to a municipal system is going to cost us an arm and a leg. There's a wastewater facility at Azraq camp but it does have its limitations and there are all kinds of issues around the kind of wastewater that's being generated by the camp, which is both human and industrial waste," El Hattab said, clarifying himself by adding," and by that I mean water that is being offloaded by washing machines that has a very high load of chemicals, which have a detrimental impact on the wastewater treatment process."

El Hattab's department within UNICEF is responsible for the NGOs largest slice of the budget within the region. In 2015 it amounted to around $268 million US and in 2016 that number dropped to $215 million US. As for 2017, El Hattab says, "It's still starting, it's pretty dodgy but that's how it always is, but we are looking forward to an increase in funding levels."

Even with that money however, El Hattab says, "A lot of what we're doing is killing fires at this point in time. It's difficult to be prepared for every scenario and Murphy's Law comes into play all too often."

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