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UNHCR’s Harper: ‘No evidence’ of Zaatari water pollution

May 29, 2014       Through more than three […]

29 May 2014

May 29, 2014      

Through more than three years of conflict, at least 596,000 Syrian refugees have fled south across the border into Jordan, straining the country’s natural resources, especially its water supply. As refugees have poured in, the Jordanian media and government opine continuously about the impact of the Syrian refugees on the water supply of one of the 10 most water-deprived countries in the world.

Home to more than 100,000 Syrians, the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan is Jordan’s fifth-largest population center and the second-largest refugee camp in the world. A recent report funded by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation warned that the Zaatari camp could potentially pollute the water basin beneath it.

The study, led by the Jordanian economist Khalid Al Wazani, concludes that “pollution may affect the water basin underneath Al Zaatari Camp because of the large number of refugees.”

“It is too risky to leave the issue unaddressed,” according to the report.  The basin Zaatari sits on is crucial in supplying water to the nearby cities of Mafraq, Irbid, and Zarqa in a country where groundwater makes up 54% of the country’s water supply.

The report recommends the UN “move the camp as soon as possible…otherwise, the result will be devastating for the environment and people.”

The UNHCR, which administers Zaatari camp, refutes the hypothesis that the water supply is in danger of contamination. “There is no evidence that the water of any aquifers has been polluted,” the UNHCR’s Representative to Jordan, Andrew Harper tells Gioia Forster. While the final decision rests with the Jordanian government, as far as the UNHCR is concerned, Harper says, “Zaatari will not be moved.”

Q: A recent report by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Amman warned the Zaatari camp could pollute the aquifer beneath it and have “devastating” effects on the environment and people. Is this the case?

The situation is that sewage in any refugee camp is a concern and it is one of the reasons why we invest so much in trying to ensure that the water table is not put at risk. We’ve undertaken a number of studies, including with the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, to ensure that water tables are not being contaminated and there is no evidence that they have.

That being said, we need to ensure that not only in the camp but in all areas in the north that water treatment is enhanced. A lot of the communities in the north do not have proper sanitation facilities. Zaatari camp has a huge population but at the moment the risk is not as great as what that [report] may indicate.

But what we are looking into doing is trying to ensure that the resources are not put at risk. We are obviously extremely conscientious of any threat to Jordan’s resources and we need to do more.

Zataari camp UNHCR works on water drainage in Zaatari. Photo courtesy of @ZaatariCamp.

Often refugees do not use communal latrines for one reason or another and make their own – that means we have to try and ensure that we improve the availability of the latrines so that they don’t make their own.

If you look at how deep you have to drill to get down to the water – it is quite deep – and as far as I’m aware and as far as any reports have indicated, the aquifer is not as much risk as what this poll [report] may indicate.

I don’t want to give the impression that we are not extremely concerned but it is not an issue which is going to come up any time soon. And if anything what has happened is that with the opening of Azraq it has actually relieved the pressure on Zaatari because the population will be reduced. And that is a very good thing. And as the population is reduced we are going to be able to [provide] more systematic infrastructure both on the provision of water as well as on the evacuation of sewage.

Also there are a number of donors including the Americans, USAID, and the Germans who are also investing and improving the situation of water and sewage from the north.

There are positive things now taking place, although, that being said, I can understand the concern of the Jordanians when you do have such a massive population on top of one of Jordan’s aquifers.

Q: So the studies you and UNHCR have carried out do not indicate that the water basin has been polluted as of yet?

Yes, that is correct. Also [studies have been done] with the [Jordanian] Ministry of Water and Irrigation as well, and with UNICEF. There is no evidence that the water of any aquifers has been polluted.

Q: This KAS report suggests that Zaatari should be moved as soon as possible. Are you considering at all moving the camp or its population elsewhere?

No. One, we are not considering it, and two, it would be a decision for the government of Jordan. Jordan is responsible for the camps and we are supporting the government. But it makes no sense, because where would you move it to? Plus investors have put hundreds of millions of dollars into the camp, so it makes no sense.

What makes sense is to do a better job ensuring that the [management] of water is better and that, not only in the camp but also in the north of Jordan, the infrastructure receives further investment. On both accounts I believe that it is happening.

Q: Has the storage and disposal of water sewage changed or been improved in Zaatari in the last year?

Yes. There was a request by the Ministry of Water and Irrigation that all the sewage tanks get replaced, and they were replaced in December last year. And I think UNICEF is now putting two water treatment tanks in Zaatari as well, so that should also alleviate some of the pressure on the existing plants in the north which are being utilised quite [fully].

Q: You said pressure on Zaatari will be relieved – are you planning to move refugees to Azraq?

No, but since Azraq has opened very few refugees are going to Zaatari. And so there is a natural population movement out of Zaatari and so we expect the population of Zaatari to continue to decrease to a much more manageable level.

Q: What will that manageable level be? How many thousand refugees?

It could be anywhere between 50,000 and 80,000.

Q: Do you have a different water and sanitation system in place in Azraq?

The big difference between Zaatari and Azraq is that we had 10 days to plan for Zaatari and we had 10 months to plan for Azraq. So we put in very good septic tanks and the latrines are much more organised, they are more available. So we set up Azraq in a much more systematic way, taking into account that refugees do not want to use the communal toilets for instance, they want to have private toilets. So we’ve increased the number of toilets to take into account the refugees’ desires not to use communal toilets.

So we have done as much as we can, given the resources we have. Again, if we had money, as with anyone, we could obviously do a better job. The amount of resources we have available is extremely limited.

Q: You mentioned Zaatari was built in 10 days, and it was not built for a population of 100,000 or even 80,000 people. Do you feel Zaatari is sustainable in the long-term?

No refugee camp is established to be sustainable. We would like Zaatari and all the refugees in it to close as soon possible and the refugees to return back to Syria. But until such time that the refugees can return it’s going to [exist] in that area.

No one wants a refugee camp, no one wants anyone to live in a refugee camp. But we are where we are, the war in Syria is continuing to go on, and we are just trying to do whatever we can given the resources we have. Jordan has done a fantastic job in keeping the border open and allowing the refugees to stay here. And we are trying to do what we can given what we have.

And what is sustainable? A refugee camp relies on support from donors [and] international organisations to keep it moving and it can only be sustainable as long as we receive support.

Q: So it will remain open as long as the refugees cannot return to Syria?

Yes, that is unfortunately the case. No one wants the refugee camp to remain, no one wants to stay longer than absolutely necessary, and I am the first one to prefer them to [return home].

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