Sewage pours into Syria from occupied Golan Heights, leaks into local dams

AMMAN: Sewage water reportedly originating in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is pouring into Syria’s southwestern Quneitra province for a 10th week, residents and local civilian authorities on the ground told Syria Direct, leaking into local dams and contaminating water and farmland.

“The spill is constant,” an official on the local council in Jabata al-Khashab, a Syrian town near the site of the leak, told Syria Direct. The wastewater is flowing into Syria’s tiny southwest Quneitra province from the direction of the Druze-majority town of Buqaatha to the west, located in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the official said.  

Syria Direct contacted the Buqaatha Local Council’s Facebook page on Wednesday. The individual who responded said they had “no information” regarding the spill.

But pictures and video published online in recent weeks show water spilling into an area between the towns of Jabata al-Khashab and al-Hamidiyah, in rebel-held northern Quneitra.

Israel captured most of the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War in 1967. The United Nations established a 45-mile demilitarized buffer zone between the countries in 1973, leaving Syria’s side of Quneitra province a sliver of land sandwiched between the Golan to the west and Daraa province to the east.

 Sewage flows under a road in north Quneitra province, with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the distance. Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency/Faruk Al Ahmed

Sewage water began leaking into Quneitra province from the neighboring Golan as early as 2006, the official told Syria Direct, “but the leak was weak and far off, and the water settled at a position approximately 2km back from its current position.”

The latest flow of wastewater began on September 11, he said, and quickly flooded the main road running vertically through Quneitra province. Three days into the spill, local authorities and rebels took “emergency, temporary measures” to clear the road and mitigate some of the damage from the leak, he said.

“We’ve set up an earthen berm to protect the road,” the official, who asked to remain unnamed, told Syria Direct. “We’ve also dug an alternate route for the water to pass under the main road, and now it’s open.”

While the road is clear, the official said, there is little that local authorities can do to stop the sewage. The local council has, he said, “contacted some intermediaries” who “promised to convey the matter to the administration of Buqaatha to find a solution.”

“So far, nothing has been done.”

‘Agricultural and medical disaster’

Wastewater is currently leaking into the al-Mantara dam, the largest in Quneitra province, the local council official told Syria Direct, “which feeds into seven dams further south.”

“It will cause a humanitarian crisis,” he warned.

Salem al-Bakheet, the director of water resources in Quneitra province, told Al Jazeera earlier this month that the sewage, flowing downhill, is settling in the province’s Raqad valley. That valley extends 73km from northern Quneitra down to the Yarmouk Basin near the border and feeds into the seven dams.

  Sewage flows through a newly dug trench in Quneitra on October 25. Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency/Faruk Al Ahmed.

Residents of Quneitra and the Yarmouk Basin area of southwest Daraa province rely on the water in the dams to irrigate summer and winter crops, and the “leakage of sewage water into them could cause an agricultural and medical disaster for the residents,” said al-Bakheet.

“The land damaged so far is farmland near the border,” Abu Muhammad, a resident of Jabata al-Khashab told Syria Direct. He worries that “the continued spillage of the water could cause disease and [increased] soil salinity,” rendering it unfit for agriculture.

The conspiracy theory

Some Quneitra residents suspect the sewage leak was intentional, aimed at hindering a rebel offensive earlier this year in northern Quneitra, a claim that Syria Direct cannot verify.

Residents point to the timing of the spill, which reportedly began one day after local rebels launched their “Qadisiyat al-Janoub” battle to capture regime-held areas in Quneitra and Daraa.

Most of the province is held by Syrian rebel factions, including the Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups such as Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (formerly Jabhat a-Nusra). Syrian regime forces hold some territory in the province’s north, while an IS-linked faction holds a pocket of turf in the south.

One potential target of the September battles was the Druze town of Hadar, in a regime-controlled area of northern Quneitra province.

Jabata al-Khashab resident Abu Muhammad accused “the Druze of the occupied Golan” of “diverting the wastewater to hinder the advance of the rebels and cut supply routes.”

However, September’s battles stalled, as did the more recent “Flames of Mt. Hermon” offensive that also, had it succeeded, would have involved the regime-held Druze town of Hadar.

While some Quneitra residents see the latest spill as a calculated act, earlier incidents of inappropriate waste disposal in the Israeli-occupied Golan have had more mundane origins—sewage truck drivers dumping waste illegally in open areas rather than driving to treatment plants.

In April 2012, the Israeli company managing sewage disposal in the Golan Heights began monitoring its trucks using GPS to prevent illegal sewage disposal, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Razan Yasin

Razan is from Douma in East Ghouta. She holds a degree in pharmacy from the Islamic Society College. She wants to write about Syrians’ daily life during wartime.

Mohammed al-Aseel

Mohammad was a law student at Damascus University when the revolution began. Originally from Daraa, he moved to Jordan in 2013.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.