‘Drink it anyway’: Syria water woes peak in cholera outbreak

AL-KASRAH, SYRIA – In a Syria hospital crowded with women and wailing children, Mr Ahmad al-Mohammad writhed in pain beside his wife after they contracted cholera, which is resurging for the first time in years.

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

“We have suffered from diarrhoea, vomiting and pain… because we drink directly from the Euphrates River,” the 45-year-old told AFP from the hospital, barely able to speak. “The waters of the Euphrates are polluted but we have no other choice.”

Cholera is generally contracted from contaminated food or water and spreads in residential areas that lack proper sewerage networks or mains drinking water.

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

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

The semi-autonomous Kurdish administration that runs north-east 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, health official Juan Mustafa told reporters Wednesday.

He said water testing of the Euphrates proved the presence of bacteria responsible for cholera – a spread he said was caused by reduced water flow.

River pollution

Said to have once flowed through the biblical Garden of Eden, the Euphrates runs for almost 2,800km across Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

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

But drought and rising temperatures linked to climate change have severely diminished water levels, with the Euphrates experiencing historic lows.

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