It is the water from the lake of Dukan, the authorities say, that caused the first major outbreak of cholera in Sulaymaniya since 2007. Some 202 cases of the disease have been recorded in the city, and 1800 cases of vomiting and diarrhea that ended in hospital. Four people are said to have died.
Every summer the threat of cholera hangs over Sulaymaniya. After the earlier outbreaks, restaurants were told by the authorities no longer to serve jugs of water with the meals, but only bottled water. The sales of water in plastic bottles went up enormously from that moment. It helped somewhat, but every year with the heat the cholera returns. This year is just exceptionally bad, and it seems to have taken the health authorities by surprise. The Health Ministry at the beginning just ignored it, probably hoping it would die down as it did before. And after twelve days of daily new cases, the parliament met to discuss the problems.
The outcomes of those deliberations were the order not to drink the water from the tap, and to keep away from vegetables. As we say in Holland: only after the calf has drowned, the well is closed over.
The authorities have been warned before, and again and again, of the danger of cholera - as it returns every year in the summer. The cause is complicated, and part of a bigger problem. The Kurdish cities are growing fast, and because of the speed of the growth and the lack of vision of those responsible, they do not have a good sewage system nor a good water treatment system. Drinking water comes from the lakes, which also serve as the exit of the sewage - so no wonder the cholera bacteria was found in Dukan lake. This is the question of the chicken and the egg, which was first?
Another cause of the problem are the wells that people - and the government - are using. I know that many of the deep wells in Sulaymaniya have been extremely low since the end of spring. Reason: the city uses far more water than it has, and far more than the winter rains allow it to. And the reason for that I have covered before: people are not careful with water. The Kurds are big users, with almost 800 liters per day per person. And up till now very little is being done to change this.
On top of that is the policy to 'greenify' the motorways in the cities. It is great to have plants and trees in the middle and at the sides of the main roads - but all the green needs water. And if plants are chosen that are not from the region, and only thrive with a lot of water, that also adds to the problems.
The low level of the wells means that the little water left in the bottom may well be polluted.And the wells that people dug themselves may well be polluted too by the sewage when it rains. Every evening the Kurdish capital Erbil stinks of sewage - because there is no good sewage system. In many areas there is even none, with houses just using underground tanks for their waste water, that overflow - thus causing the stench, and posing a threat to national health.
In Sulaymaniya, every year when the rains start, the water from the taps show a muddy color. It looks like the rain is getting into the water system, which of course makes the water no longer fit for drinking.
Every summer, in the lake of Darbandikhan fish die mysteriously. The media are keen to report about poisons that are used, sabotage or otherwise. But what really happens is that the lake is so full of the shit - excusez le mot - of Sulaymaniya that the water has too little oxygen for the fish to survive.
Photo Kurdish Globe
Then: the vegetables. Yes, I hear from farmers that because of the lack of clean water, a mixture with waste water is used to water the crops. But when you clean vegetables well with clean water and dry them before cutting and eating, or cook them in boiling water, I do not see why the bacteria would still be a threat.
The cause of cholera is a bigger one than drinking water and vegetables. It is a government that is allowing cities to grow without taking into consideration that water management is needed. It cannot be that in a country as rich on oil and with a booming economy as Kurdistan that wants to be the shining example of the region, there is no vision or money or planning to make sure its citizens have clean water.
The right to clean water is a human right. It is a necessity, as the cholera outbreak has shown. And it definitely is not a luxury. It needs politicians that get their priorities right. If the water problem is not tackled soon, Kurdistan will become unlivable. It has no seawater that it can desalinate. It is depending on the rain and snow of the winter for the flow if its rivers and the level of its deep wells. It needs to manage water, to clean waste water, to reuse water. It needs action. And soon!