A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians

Syria’s cholera outbreak has affected the country’s poorest people. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 03 November 2022

A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians

  • WHO believes the current outbreak was caused by the public consumption of polluted water from the Euphrates
  • Syria’s health infrastructure has crumbled as a result of aid embargoes, sanctions and war damage

DUBAI/QAMISHLI, Syria: After more than 11 years of war, destruction, displacement and hunger, Syrians now face a new horror: Cholera. The disease, caused by contaminated food and water, has spread across several parts of the country in recent months and has already claimed lives.

Cholera, which has been largely eliminated in the developed world, causes diarrhea and vomiting, leading to rapid dehydration, which can kill within hours without prompt treatment. The number of cases in Syria has been steadily on the rise since the summer.

The World Health Organization recorded 24,614 infections and 81 deaths between August to the end of October, with Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasakah witnessing the highest concentrations, while camps for the internally displaced have reported 65 cases.

A child suffering from cholera receives treatment at the Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

Parts of Syria, especially the far-flung governorates, have been facing a water crisis since most water and sewerage infrastructure was destroyed as a result of the civil war that erupted in 2011.

WHO believes the current outbreak was likely caused by the consumption of polluted water from the Euphrates River. Drought, the overpumping of groundwater, and new dams built upstream in Turkey have reduced the once mighty river to a trickle.

Falling water levels have created swamps and stagnant pools along the riverbanks, where raw sewage and other contaminants have collected and festered — the ideal conditions for water- and mosquito-borne diseases to develop.

Jwan Mustafa, co-chair of the Health Board of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), said the first case of cholera was recorded in the region in September, spreading from Deir Ezzor to Raqqa and later to Hasakah further to the north.

“Our recent statistics based on rapid testing confirm 15,000 cases and 30 deaths,” Mustafa told Arab News. “The pollution in the Euphrates River has been the main cause of plenty of prior viruses and diseases. And now cholera.

“People in the area rely on the river to drink, water their plants and for agriculture. The area by the river is considered the breadbasket of northeast Syria. When Hasakah faces a drought, it relies on the Euphrates’ water, which spells disaster for the governorate.

“We’ve started taking measures to attempt to contain the spread of the disease. Groups have been tasked with adding chlorine to water tanks in attempt to purify them.”

Syrians in Deir Ezzor are forced to use contaminated sections of the Euphrates River for drinking water and irrigation. (AFP)

Authorities are encouraging the public in cholera hotspots to first boil their water before drinking, cooking or watering their crops, to treat water tanks, pipes and other vessels with chlorine, and to regularly wash their hands and sanitize surfaces. 

However, given Syria’s crumbling infrastructure, the flight of skilled workers abroad and shortages of basic chemicals and equipment, even these simple preventative measures are difficult to implement. 

“The deterioration of the infrastructure has greatly impacted the health sector,” said Mustafa. “We struggle to contain diseases because we lack the resources and expertise. A simple virus can very easily become an epidemic in the region. We are short on laboratories and medications.”

Syria’s health infrastructure has suffered under a devastating mix of aid embargoes, sanctions and war damage. Throughout the civil war, the regime of Bashar Assad has systematically destroyed hospitals in rebel-held areas in defiance of international humanitarian law.


• Some 29 countries have reported cholera outbreaks since January of this year.

• Afghanistan, Pakistan and Haiti are among those affected besides Syria and Lebanon.

• UNICEF urgently needs $40.5 million to expand its emergency cholera response in Syria and Lebanon alone.

• The money will support health, water, hygiene and sanitation, risk communication and community engagement.

Meanwhile, deliveries of foreign aid to areas beyond the regime’s control have been deliberately blocked or diverted.

Since June 2021, when regime ally Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution allowing eastern Syria to continue receiving cross-border support via Iraq, all UN aid to the region must first pass through Damascus.

This has resulted in severe shortages of medical supplies, poor coordination between health authorities, and limited testing capacity in eastern Syria.

For the people of Raqqa, the outbreak of cholera is only the latest in a litany of crises they are forced to face alone.

A woman suffering from cholera receives treatment at the Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

“The Syrian regime is not helping. People are already feeling haggard and depressed from the daily struggles brought on by the war,” Ahmad, a community activist in Raqqa who declined to give his full name, told Arab News.

“We know we are in trouble, but we also know help will not come from the Syrian regime. We know aid will not come locally or internationally. People do not care anymore. The cholera doesn’t faze us. We’ve been dying from war, chemical weapons and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We often muse how our lives have become Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book: ‘Love in the time of cholera,’” he added.

“Cholera doesn’t know borders and lines of control, and spreads along population movements,” said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. (Supplied)

In response to the cholera outbreak, Doctors Without Borders, in cooperation with local health officials in Raqqa, has established a local treatment center and two outpatient clinics in the AANES.

However, maintaining adequate food hygiene and access to clean drinking water has become increasingly difficult for most Syrians since the onset of the economic crisis and the currency collapse of 2019, which were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the spiraling price of food and fuel since the outbreak of war in Ukraine earlier this year.

According to the World Food Programme, the average price of food items in Syria has risen 532 percent since 2020. As a result, some 12 million people still living in Syria are now considered food insecure.

“Goods have become unattainable,” said Ahmad. “Talk on the street is that death is the best escape. And it will come, if not from cholera or COVID-19, then from hunger.”

A Syrian boy carries a bucket of water at the Sahlah Al-Banat camp for displaced people in the countryside of Raqa, in northern Syria. (AFP)

Conditions in neighboring Lebanon, where millions of Syrians have sought refuge in crowded camps since the outbreak of civil war, are not much better.

Already grappling with its own unprecedented economic crisis, which has thrown 80 percent of its citizens into poverty and left its infrastructure in tatters, Lebanon has also recorded cases of cholera.

Firass Abiad, Lebanon’s health minister, confirmed on Tuesday that the country had recorded 17 cholera deaths and 93 hospitalizations nationwide, including cases in the capital Beirut.

The government is trying to secure 600,000 vaccine doses for the most vulnerable, including prisoners, frontline workers and refugees residing in cramped and often squalid camps.

For most Syrians and Lebanese, who must foot their own medical bills amid rising prices and shattered health infrastructure, the omens are not good.

“I don’t even know where to start. If I get infected I don’t know if I can afford or even have a hospital bed ready for me,” Lina, a Lebanese citizen living in Akkar, a poverty-stricken area of northern Lebanon, told Arab News.

“Life has become unbearably difficult. But, at the end of the day, it’s just another way to die.”

Iran-backed Hezbollah downs Israeli drone in southern Lebanon

Updated 52 min 50 sec ago

Iran-backed Hezbollah downs Israeli drone in southern Lebanon

  • Hezbollah said the drone was an Israeli Hermes 450, a multi-payload drone made by Elbit Systems, an Israel-based weapons manufacturer

AMMAN: Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah said on Sunday it downed an Israeli drone that was on a combat mission in southern Lebanon.
The drone that was brought down above the Al Aishiyeh area in southern Lebanon was “waging its attacks on our steadfast people,” a statement said by the group said.
Israeli forces and Lebanon’s armed group Hezbollah have been exchanging fire for over six months in parallel to the Gaza war, in the most serious hostilities since they fought a major war in 2006.
Hezbollah said the drone was an Israeli Hermes 450, a multi-payload drone made by Elbit Systems, an Israel-based weapons manufacturer.
The fighting has fueled concern about the risk of further escalation.
At least 370 Lebanese, including more than 240 Hezbollah fighters and 68 civilians, have been killed in the fighting according to a Reuters tally. Eighteen Israelis, including soldiers and civilians, have been killed on the Israeli side of the border, according to Israeli tallies.


UK PM discusses Gaza developments with Jordan’s king

Updated 22 April 2024

UK PM discusses Gaza developments with Jordan’s king

  • Sunak told the king that the UK’s ultimate goal is to achieve a workable two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Sunday made a phone call to Jordan’s King Abdullah to discuss developments in the Gaza Strip, 10 Downing Street announced.
During the call, Sunak renewed the UK’s support for Jordan’s security and that of the region, saying a significant escalation is “not in anyone’s interests.”
He added that the UK’s focus remains on finding a solution to the conflict in Gaza.
The UK continues to work toward an immediate humanitarian truce to bring in much larger amounts of aid and return the Israeli hostages held by Hamas safely to their families, “leading to a longer-term sustainable ceasefire,” Sunak said.
The two leaders “discussed joint efforts to significantly step up aid to Gaza, with the UK taking part in Jordanian-led aid drops and a humanitarian land corridor to Gaza, as well as the maritime aid corridor from Cyprus,” Downing Street said.
Sunak told the king that the UK’s ultimate goal is to achieve a workable two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. 
The two leaders “agreed on the importance of supporting a reformed Palestinian authority to deliver stability and prosperity across the Palestinian territories,” Downing Street said.
King Abdullah warned of the danger of regional escalation, which he said threatens international peace and security, Jordan’s official Petra news agency reported.
He renewed his call for the international community to intensify efforts to reach an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza to alleviate the worsening humanitarian catastrophe in the besieged Palestinian territory, and warned of the dangerous consequences of an Israeli assault on Rafah.
The king stressed the need to protect civilians in Gaza and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. 
He pointed to the importance of continuing to support the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees to enable it to provide its humanitarian services in accordance with its UN mandate.

Five rockets fired from Mosul toward US military base inside Syria: security sources

Updated 21 April 2024

Five rockets fired from Mosul toward US military base inside Syria: security sources

  • Attack comes on same day Iraqi PM Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani returned from visit to US

MOSUL: At least five rockets were launched from Iraq’s town of Zummar toward a US military base in northeastern Syria on Sunday, two Iraqi security sources told Reuters.
The attack against US forces is the first since early February when Iranian-backed groups in Iraq stopped their attacks against US troops.
The attack comes on the same day Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani returned from a visit to the US and met with President Joe Biden at the White House.
Two security sources and a senior army officer said a rocket launcher fixed on the back of a small truck had been parked in Zummar border town with Syria.
The military official said the truck caught fire with an explosion from unfired rockets at the same time as warplanes were in the sky.
“We can’t confirm that the truck was bombed by US warplanes unless we investigate it,” said a military official on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the incident.
The attacks came one day after a huge blast at a military base in Iraq early on Saturday killed a member of an Iraqi security force that includes Iran-backed groups. The force commander said it was an attack while the army said it was investigating and there were no warplanes in the sky at the time.

Israel’s brutal tactics blamed for Palestinians’ financial crisis

Updated 21 April 2024

Israel’s brutal tactics blamed for Palestinians’ financial crisis

JERUSALEM: The Gaza war is speeding up Israel’s “annexation” of the Palestinian economy, say analysts, who argue it has been hobbled for decades by agreements that followed the Oslo peace accords.

While the Israel-Hamas war raging since Oct. 7 has devastated swaths of Gaza, it has also hit the public finances and wider economy of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel is tightening the noose on the Palestinian Authority, which rules parts of the West Bank, by withholding tax revenues it collects on its behalf, said economist Adel Samara.

Palestinian livelihoods have also been hurt by bans on laborers crossing into Israel and by a sharp downturn in tourism in the violence-plagued territory, including a quiet Christmas season in Bethlehem.

Samara said that “technically speaking, there is no Palestinian economy under Israeli occupation — Israel has effectively annexed our economy.”

The Palestinian economy is largely governed by the 1994 Paris Protocol, which granted sole control over the territories’ borders to Israel and, with it, the right to collect import duties and value-added tax for the Palestinian Authority.

Israel has repeatedly leveraged this power to deprive the authority of much-needed revenues.

But the Gaza war has further tightened Israel’s grip, Samara said, with the bulk of customs duties withheld since Hamas sparked the war with the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

“Without these funds, the Palestinian Authority struggles to pay the salaries of its civil servants and its running costs,” said Taher Al-Labadi, a researcher at the French Institute for the Near East.

UN rapporteur raps Israeli obstruction of field visit to Gaza

Updated 21 April 2024

UN rapporteur raps Israeli obstruction of field visit to Gaza

  • Shoukry pointed out that the increase in Israeli assaults and illegal settlement practices in the West Bank raises the risk of the conflict erupting in the entirety of the occupied Palestinian territories

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese discussed the condition of human rights and Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian territories on Sunday.

Shoukry received Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories, in Cairo, where they called for an immediate end to Israeli attacks on Gaza in compliance with international laws and demanded the safe delivery of humanitarian aid.

They also called for a stop to mounting settler violence in the West Bank, demanding accountability of the perpetrators.

Shoukry pointed out that the increase in Israeli assaults and illegal settlement practices in the West Bank raises the risk of the conflict erupting in the entirety of the occupied Palestinian territories.

He warned of the security repercussions of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which undermines the stability of the broader region.

The foreign minister expressed regret over the reluctance of several countries so far to describe Israeli practices as a flagrant violation of international law.

Shoukry and Albanese discussed the status of human rights and the humanitarian condition of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Shoukry reiterated the need to stop Israel from implementing policies of collective punishment, indiscriminately targeting civilians, and displacing Palestinians from their lands.

The UN rapporteur denounced Israel’s refusal to allow her to conduct a field visit to the Gaza Strip and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Albanese expressed her deep concern for the catastrophic humanitarian situation Palestinians are experiencing and called on Israel to comply with its obligations under international law as the occupying power.

She also stressed her keenness to continue discussions with Egypt regarding ways to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians.