Infections spread in southwest Syrian town as residents rely on contaminated river for drinking water

AMMAN: In a frontline town in southwestern Syria, water-borne diseases are spreading among an estimated 4,000 residents who have resorted to drinking from a contaminated river after an Islamic State affiliate seized and then cut off their freshwater supply two months ago.

In the past two months, more than 300 residents have contracted infections after drinking water from the Yarmouk River, Abu Abdullah, the head of the only medical facility in the Daraa town of Hayt, told Syria Direct.

Hayt lies in the Yarmouk Basin, a pocket of territory in southwest Syria wedged between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the west and Jordan to the south. The Islamic State-linked faction Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) holds much of the pocket. Hayt, controlled by Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions hostile to JKW, currently sits on a frontline.

The town has been under threat since JKW launched a military offensive in mid-February against FSA territory in the Yarmouk Basin. Attacking eastward, the IS affiliate captured several towns and villages from opposition forces distracted by a newly launched campaign against the regime in the provincial capital of Daraa city, Syria Direct reported at the time.

During the surprise offensive, rebel forces lost control of Sahm al-Jolan, the site of a freshwater spring two kilometers north of Hayt.

“When the Islamic State [JKW] took over the town, they cut the water and disconnected the pump that supplies Hayt,” Tariq, an engineer and member of the Hayt Local Council, told Syria Direct.

JKW also briefly seized the town of Hayt in their February offensive, but Ahrar a-Sham and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters regained control of the town one day later.

Since then, sporadic clashes and shelling have continued between JKW and other local rebel factions, but neither side has gained or lost territory.

It is not immediately clear why JKW cut the water supply to Hayt. Syria Direct was not able to find any statements by the faction regarding the spring in Sahm al-Jolan.

However, one FSA commander in Hayt told Syria Direct that he views the water crisis as an attempt by the Islamic State affiliate to weaken the frontline town’s defenses and morale.

A child from Hayt fills a bottle with water near the Yarmouk River. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

“[JKW] cut off water in an attempt to pressure, divide and cause rifts between the people of the town, instigating hostility between civilians and the FSA,” Bassam al-Ghazawi, commander of the FSA-affiliated Thee al-Nourain Brigade, told Syria Direct last week.

“There isn’t a family in the town that hasn’t sent one fighter to the FSA’s ranks to combat the Islamic State,” al-Ghazawi added.

Now, for the estimated 4,000 residents in Hayt, the only nearby source of water is the Yarmouk River, a tributary of the Jordan River which runs through an adjacent valley along the border with Jordan. But the water is not safe to drink.

“Some nearby towns—Tafas, Zayzoun and Ajami—drain their sewage systems into the river,” Hayt local council member Tariq tells Syria Direct.

Residents boil the river water in an attempt to remove contaminants, “but it doesn’t do any good,” he added. “It has caused outbreaks of illnesses among residents, particularly children.”

‘Showing mercy to no one’

After drinking water from the Yarmouk Riverin late February, Hayt resident Ziad al-Masri began to feel a sharp pain in his stomach and started to suffer from severe diarrhea.

“The staff at the medical point suspect that it’s due to a type of intestinal bacteria,” al-Masri told Syria Direct.

Hayt's only medical facility is a small, ramshackle building where one nurse and four local residents with basic medical training provide basic care to the town’s 4,000 residents.

The shelves lining the walls are stacked with essentials such as painkillers and first aid equipment, but little more. 

Since residents began drinking water from the Yarmouk River in February, the medical point has seen numerous cases of intestinal infections and diarrhea, a nurse at the medical point and a Civil Defense member told Syria Direct.

Residents are also developing allergic reactions through prolonged contact with the river water, showing symptoms of itchiness and skin redness.

“Treatment of these diseases is very limited because of the lack of a specialized medical staff,” Civil Defense member Nasr al-Hariri told Syria Direct last week.

The doctor who previously worked at the medical point fled when JKW fighters encircled the town in February, al-Hariri added.

Rula, a Hayt resident in her 20s, visited the medical point after she began to feel abdomen pain at the end of April after drinking water from the Yarmouk River for weeks. She was two months pregnant.

The staff at the medical point believed that contaminants in the drinking water caused an infection; however, they were unable to provide a firm diagnosis or treat the infection.

“Because of my weakened immune system, I lost my unborn child,” Rula told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“It was psychologically debilitating.”

The Free Syrian Army rebel groups in control of the region blame JKW for the water crisis, and say they have not reached out to the Islamic State affiliate.

“They do not have any moral or religious restraints,” says rebel commander al-Ghazawi. “They shell the town daily, showing mercy to no one and nothing.”

“There hasn’t been any contact because they don’t keep their word.”

Mohammad Aloush

Originally from Damascus, Mohammad was studying economics when his family decided to move to Jordan. He graduated with a degree in accounting.

Majdoleen a-Zouabi

Majdoline is from Daraa province. She studied journalism in Syria before moving to Jordan in 2013.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.