Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon Struggle for Water

“They gave the well its last rites a few days ago,” Mona says, laughing. She stops again to wipe the beads of sweat running down her face.

By: Rameh Hamieh

Published Monday, September 24, 2012

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides assistance to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, has come under attack for not providing adequate basic services, including the most basic of them all: drinking water.

Baalbeck - “Even the water is used to humiliate us,” says Mona, clearly fed up and struggling to climb the stairs to her second floor flat in al-Jalil refugee camp in Baalbeck.

Mona, in her fifties, climbs a few steps with her heavy water containers and stops to catch her breath.

“I have no one to help me,” she says, but buying and carrying two containers of water a day is unavoidable in al-Jalil, “after they warned us not to drink the contaminated UNRWA water.”

The saga of the contamination of the al-Jalil camp water well has gone on for years, but now the Palestinian popular committees say they have been forced to shut down the well after UNRWA’s own technical team discovered serious construction violations in the well itself that were causing raw sewage and other contaminants to pollute the water.

“They gave the well its last rites a few days ago,” Mona says, laughing. She stops again to wipe the beads of sweat running down her face.

“We, the Palestinians, are being made to pay for this, in this scorching heat and at a time when the camp is overcrowded because of the poor [Palestinian] refugees from Syria,” she adds.

Mona continues to climb the stairs carefully, muttering curses against “the life we are now forced to live.”

The main square and alleyways in the refugee camp are a beehive of activity. The narrow passages are crowded with women and young girls carrying transparent 10 liter water containers. Some have bought them from shops inside the camp, while others got them from one of the many shops outside and at the main entrance.

One young man took it upon himself to bring cheaper water from a well in Baalbek, selling at half the price of the local shops “to help our people in the camp and the Palestinian refugees from Syria,” he says.

The well, adjacent to the UNRWA building, is now well-sealed. “Dead: the victim of the corrupt and bribable UNRWA mafia,” reads the graffiti on the adjacent wall. Expressions of “sorrow, anguish... and contaminated water,” and bitter remarks such as “no condolences will be received” cover the wall.

Omar Qassem, the secretary of the PLO Popular Committee, explained in an interview with Al-Akhbar that their decision to close the well was not intended “to spite or provoke.”

The well had to be closed, he said, “to prevent the spread of an epidemic inside the camp, which could kill 6,000 of its own people as well as the Palestinian refugees from Syria who have come here.”

“UNRWA’s delays and procrastination over many months, claiming that the problem will be resolved, and then failing every time, compelled us to shut down the well and warn our people against drinking the water or using it for cooking,” he said. “Since UNRWA is not going to buy water for the people, we ask them to dig a new well suitable for drinking water as soon as possible. The LL 23 million ($ 15,300) that UNRWA pays to the Bekaa Water Company in exchange for pumping a small amount of water from the Maslakh well is enough to dig a new well.”

Karem Taha, secretary of the Alliance Forces Popular Committees, says that at one point UNRWA did send a technical team, including a Swiss geologist, to examine the well and find the source of the sewage leak.

What the team discovered, Taha says, was that serious building violations from when the well was dug were causing the contamination.

The well should have been 450 meters deep, according to official building plans, in order to reach the water table instead of subsidiary canals which might dry up or be filled with polluted groundwater. It turns out the well was only dug to 328 meters, according to Taha.

Another violation, he adds, was that the insulation sheet, which should consist of “a soil buttress supported by more than 200 bags of soil” turned out to be a concrete mix made up of only 20 bags.

Taha laughs as he produces an UNRWA 2011 achievement report, which claims that wells were dug in all Palestinian camps and that all “are fit for drinking, including al-Jalil camp.”

Taha insists that the well in its current state is nothing more than a sewer filled with insects that are plainly visible to the naked eye.

Furthermore, he adds, the results of lab analyses carried out by several hospitals in the Bekaa as well as the Scientific and Agriculture Authority in Tal Amara prove the water to be undrinkable.

“The decision to shut the well was a difficult one, but the risk is too high,” Taha says, “as popular committees we have to look after our people and the refugees we are hosting.”

An UNRWA official who spoke to Al-Akhbar on the condition of anonymity does not deny the accusations of building violations, but insists that the well is not contaminated “all the time” and does not see “any dereliction of duty in treating the problem” on UNRWA’s behalf.

He says that the people of the camp will have to “wait for the engineer in charge of resolving the problem of the well to finish his work.” In the meantime, the water is worst this time of year but can be used if it is boiled, he says.

“UNRWA has left no stone unturned in this matter,” he says, adding that it is “not possible” for the agency to dig a new well in al-Jalil at the moment given the “state of emergency” in the rest of the camps in Lebanon.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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