Damascus doctor says children falling ill in third week of massive water shortage

At a hospital in Damascus, Dr. Mohammad is working to treat children sickened by a severe water shortage, now in its third week, brought on by ongoing fighting over a nearby spring that provided 70 percent of the capital city’s water supply.

UN agency OCHA counts at least four million Damascenes now cut off from clean water since December 22, when regime forces vying for control of the nearby Wadi Barada valley say rebels contaminated the area’s Ein al-Fijeh spring with diesel. Rebels blame government bombs for damaging the water source.

Among the most vulnerable to contaminated water are the children of Damascus, who Dr. Mohammad says are beginning to fall ill.

“I’m seeing cases of children of all ages suffer from severe diarrhea as well as fever,” the doctor, who withheld his real name for fear of government reprisal, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.

Residents now rely on limited government water rations and UN handouts, in addition to buying their own water for a steep price. Still, it isn’t enough. People don’t have enough water in their homes for cooking and cleaning food, says Dr. Mohammad. “They aren’t washing things like fruits and vegetables properly.”

Even local restaurants have too little water to wash customers’ plates and eating utensils, he tells Syria Direct. “Most cases of food poisoning in children come from parents who resort to feeding their kids at restaurants due to a lack of water in their own homes.”

South Damascus resident Abu Teem says people are going to public parks to wash their clothes and even to bathe. To avoid illness, he says, “people have started to have just falafel for breakfast and lunch because you can’t run a proper kitchen if you don’t have clean water.”

Q: What impact is the water cutoff in Damascus having on the spread of illnesses?

There isn’t enough water in people’s homes, and people can't buy it because water is very expensive now. As a result, people aren’t washing things like fruits and vegetables properly.

Even restaurants have stopped cleaning their cooking supplies and utensils properly, which has led to a spread of food poisoning among their customers.

 Damascus residents recieve water rations on Jan. 5. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

Q: Last week, the UN released a statement on the lack of high-quality water provided by private water companies, and the threat of disease, especially among children. Can you tell us more about some of the children you have treated in the hospital this past week? What symptoms are you seeing?

I’m seeing cases of children of all ages suffering from severe diarrhea as well as fever. Many of their families are afraid that their children are sick from the contaminated water.

There are a number of patients who remain under observation until their situation improves. One of them is an 8-year-old boy who has been in the hospital for four days. His family brought him here, and he received treatment after showing all the signs of water poisoning. His condition worsened when his blood pressure dropped, so he spent two days under observation until he stabilized.

Q: Is the hospital prepared to treat cases of water-borne illnesses? How is the hospital operating now, with the lack of water?

The medical staff at all the hospitals in Damascus are prepared for any case of water poisoning or other illness, and are ready to provide medical services to the sick.

The hospitals are getting water from the government’s reserves via sterilized water tankers.

Q: What advice are you giving to residents to avoid water-borne illnesses?

We are advising residents to take care to clean the food they are giving to children, and to wash fruits and vegetables well before giving them to members of their families.

We are also advising against eating food from restaurants because most cases of food poisoning in children come from parents who resort to feeding their kids at restaurants due to a lack of water in their own homes. This prevents them from cooking at home.

Abu Taim, 34, lives in regime-held Dahadil, a southwest Damascus suburb. He is currently unemployed, and previously worked as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company.

Q: How have you been getting by since last month’s major water cutoff to Damascus? How have you had to adjust your daily routine?

The initial shock was quite difficult, but we were comparatively fortunate because thankfully there are cisterns nearby that pump water to our house for washing and bathing. However, when it comes to clean drinking water, we’ve got to buy boxes of bottled water, which go for around SP700 (approx. $3.27).

Again, I say comparatively fortunate because those who are far away from wells and cisterns like me are forced to rely on water tankers. Each tanker can carry up to 25 barrels of water, which runs for SP5,000 (approx. $23.39) per barrel. That means that a whole tanker goes for SP125,000 (approx. $584.71). People inside the heart of Damascus and many in the surrounding neighborhoods are forced to rely on water tankers because you aren’t going to be finding any water otherwise.

There are a ton of people these days going to the parks to wash their clothes and to bathe. Similarly, people have started to have just falafel for breakfast and lunch because you can’t run a proper kitchen if you don’t have clean water.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013.

Sama Mohammed

Sama is from Daraa province. She received her bachelor's degree in literature in 2011 and taught English in Sheikh Miskeen. In 2013, she moved to Jordan and worked as a freelance translator before joining Syria Direct.