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Environmental Conditions In Palestinian Camps in Lebanon - Case Study

Source: FOFOGNET Digest, 5 September 1999.

by Ali M Zeidan, Ph.D.

The Palestinian refugees, in Lebanon, are living in camps established in 1949 by the Lebanese government and UNRWA on small areas. UNRWA provides the basic services such as water supply, refuse disposal, sanitation, and the construction and maintenance of roads for 12 refugees camps, where about 53% of the registered refugees live, distributed all over Lebanon. The water and sewerage services in the camps are poor and rapidly deteriorated due to the absence of proper infrastructure elements and inadequate water supply sources. The constructed sewers and water distribution systems are characterized by lack of long term planning, absence of proper municipal connections, as well as lack of proper stormwater drainage. The situation is usually treated on temporary basis, and partial solutions are given to chronic problems, which cause health hazards and nuisance. The study focuses on Ein-El-Helweh camp, the largest camp in Lebanon, as a case study, and it overviews the water supply and sanitation conditions, as the camp experienced incidence of waterborne diseases, which was ascribed to the poor water supply and sanitation conditions.

The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were living in 15 camps distributed all over Lebanon, and established by UNRWA in 1949 after they had been expelled of their own homeland. UNRWA provides the basic services to the refugees such as education, health and relief, and social services, in addition to water supply and sanitation.

According to UNRWA estimates (UNRWA, 1995), the total number of registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is about 346164, about 53.6% of whom are living in 12 recognized camps. The Palestinian refugees camps in Lebanon are characterized by small land areas, high population density, and the absence of proper infrastructures. They have similar conditions as those of poor developing communities which are crowded in population and deprived of the minimum environmental quality conditions.

The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have suffered since they have been found from deprivation, economic and social hardships; the most severe conditions were during the civil war period. The hardships facing the refugees include: inhibition of reconstructing the damaged camps, deterioration of proper living condition, crowded households, inadequate safe water sources, absence of proper wastewater disposal and solid waste management, in addition to other humanitarian and social problems in a community of high unemployment rates approaching 40% (UNRWA, 1995). Fighting damaged great parts of the camps; three of the camps were completely destroyed, and their residents were displaced into other camps. In 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, more than 58% of the houses in 8 camps were damaged, while the damage impact was more severe and comprehensive in Ein-El-Helweh camp, where the services and infrastructure were totally damaged (Hoole et. al., 1984).

The issue of environmental conditions in the Palestinian refugees camps has not been discussed before, though it is one of the camps' chronic problems. The purpose of this paper is to overview, explain, and discuss the complicated and chronic environmental conditions in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon with emphasis on Ein-El-Helweh camp as a case study though it is not as worse as other camps. Unfortunately, information is not easily available, particularly those related to the existing services; however, information appeared herein relied on personal contacts and field visits and investigations.

General Conditions
The camps were found on temporal basis waiting for the solution of refugees problem. Accordingly, UNRWA had built temporary structures and infrastructures which were not developed during the past years despite the increase in refugees numbers and the development in social and economic conditions among refugees. The congested buildings and the absence of proper infrastructures played a significant role in deteriorating the quality of living conditions in the camps. UNRWA, which is responsible of the camps, declared that (As-safir, 1995) its plans of rehabilitation and reconstruction of the infrastructure in the camps wait the permission of the ministry of interior. It may be concluded that worse environmental conditions in addition to other humanitarian aspects will encourage people to leave the camp and the country to look for safe asylum.

Living in the congested camps is considered as a sign of poverty and deprivation (Sayigh, 1996), where about 11% of the total population is registered in the "hardship cases" program (UNRWA, 1995). The main reason of high population density is referred to the small areas allowed for refugees to build in. Besides, they are not allowed to expand outside the camps' borders; however, the lands allocated for refugee camps in 1949 have not been increased during the past 50 years, but on the contrary, they were reduced in some places and totally demolished in others. To overcome this problem the refugees expanded vertically, and built tortured buildings in order to find asylum for more new families. In most cases, the resulted buildings lack the minimum requirements for healthy living and are poor in their environmental conditions.

Ein-El-Helweh refugee camp, the largest refugee camp in Lebanon, was established in 1949 at 3 km to the south east of Saida, about 45 km south of Beirut; its area is about 318,236 m2 (32 ha). Since 1976 the camp has received thousands of emigrants and displaced refugees from other damaged camps in Beirut and south Lebanon. However, there is no exact figure of the population in the camp; it was estimated in the range between 38,483 as registered by UNRWA (UNRWA, 1995) and 80,000 according to local estimates (As-safir, 1997) including the new groupings recently developed around the camp. Some figures refer to the presence of 8826 shelter approximately (UNRWA, 1996). Assuming the average family members to be 6.2, therefore, the population should be about 55000, and the population density approaches 1719 person per hectare.

Water Supply
The water supply pattern has been developed from distribution by water tanker to public water standpipes then into household connections. The development was done by various uncoordinated efforts of the inhabitants, NGO's, and UNRWA. It was based on temporary basis which did not consider the future demands of population. At present the camp is supplied with water from two sources (Sanitation Section, 1997): municipal sources, which provide about 60% of the consumed water quantity, and local wells inside the camp, which provide 40%. Four wells and elevated tank of capacity 280 m3 were constructed during the 1980's by local committees in order to meet the water demand in the camp and the near residential areas as well. However, there are records about the flow rate or well production.

When camps were first established, water was distributed for all purposes at a rate of 10 l/c/d to 20 l/c/d (CEHA, 1991). Recently, it has been reported that the monthly consumption rate in the past years was about 114500 m3 (Sanitation Section, 1997), i.e., about 48 to 69 l/c/d. Although the consumption rate per capita has been increased within 50 years, it remained low as compared to the average recommended 150 l/c/d.

In the mean time, the refugees are suffering from water supply shortage, particularly in the hot summer season, due to several factors: the most significant factor is the intermittent supply from outside sources due to frequent failures and lack of maintenance; some wells have been closed when dried out; water pressure was not adequate, so refugees have been using small pumps to lift water from mains into household cisterns.

The absence of responsibility and planning, has resulted in a confused, poor and incomplete water distribution networks inside the camp alleys; whereas some quarters have access to water, others are still deprived of any source. Major parts of the old distribution network were damaged during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, while most of the damaged parts, or the old corroded pipes were not replaced or properly rehabilitated. Most of the pipes were laid beside ditches and sewerage lines without considering the minimum engineering requirements for pipe protection; this situation allows for water contamination and spread of diseases.

Laboratory investigations are rarely conducted (Sanitation Section, 1997). It is worthy to note that old pipes were exposed to contamination through leakage, and the presence of contamination, either because of pipe corrosion or water quality, will enhance the hazards of communicable diseases. Water borne or water related diseases are propagated through water or due to lack of adequate water supply or improper waste disposal.

Sewerage Disposal
UNRWA started its program with the provision of temporary latrines, then replaced by septic tank latrines with percolation pits at the rate of 3 slabs per 100 persons (CEHA, 1991). In 1970's most of the households in the camp had their own septic tanks, or VIP latrines and soakage pits, with absence of a sewerage system. The pits need to be evacuated by special equipped trucks when filled; however, these trucks are not easily available. One of the disadvantages of this system is that the flooded pits would become a good environment for insects and flies breeding, and then a potential source of water contamination and health risks during the rainy season.

In the beginning of 1970's UNRWA installed sewer lines in the major streets of the camp and connected them to the main municipal interceptor. Other sewer lines were connected to old lines (ø200mm) which had been constructed in the 1940's, and passed under houses (UNRWA, 1996). The existing sewerage system is still working and serves about 20% of the population. Some parts of the sewerage system were rehabilitated, and many houses were connected to the new lines constructed in the alleys. It should be mentioned that the new residential groupings formed around the camp are still deprived from infrastructure services such as waste disposal or water supply.

On the other hand, there is no proper stormwater drainage system in the camp; however, few open ditches exist in some areas. In rainy seasons the alleys and streets are usually flooded and become like swamps. The ditches, of total length about 400m, were constructed to dispose of stormwater into a near wadi passing in the camp. The ditches are being used to dispose of used water and sullage, so they remain a place for dumping rubbish and garbage, as well as stagnant water, pests, and bad odours. So they become a source of potential hazards that endanger the near houses and public health particularly when polluted water overflow to houses.

Discussion and Analysis
UNRWA is considered as the only international organization that provides services, although few, to the refugees. The provided services include environmental health, sanitation, water supply, and solid waste disposal. Several social, political, and historical factors have been interrelated in a complicated way that resulted in the refugees hard living conditions. Many serious problems played a significant role in the deterioration of general environmental conditions and the spread of communicable diseases among the refugees; these problems include high population density, shortage of safe water supply in quantity and quality, lack of proper infrastructure services, and mismanagement of solid waste. According to the general director of UNRWA in Lebanon, the environmental conditions in the refugee camps in Lebanon are disastrous (As-safir, 1995).

The government's policy prevented the expansion or the reconstruction of the damaged camps. While UNRWA has frozen its projects of improving the public facilities, people were forced to build in the alleys and paths of the camp a very unhealthy houses which did not conform with the minimum living standards. These buildings will have a significant impact on the type of services and infrastructures available, such as water distribution and sewage disposal. As previously mentioned, the absence of proper disposal system of surface drainage and rain water, allows the refugees to dispose of the used water and sullage into the roads and alleys, which causes ponding, and overflowing of water into houses when it rains. The narrow alleys have raised many barriers before any attempt to install water lines or sanitary network in trenches due to difficulties in excavating the roads between houses. However, the poor living and environmental conditions in the camp (insufficient space, over-crowding, sewage disposal, insufficient drinking water) would be badly reflected on other social and health aspects of families, particularly children.

According to WHO Standards (WHO, 1971), water for human consumption must be free from organisms and from concentrations of chemical substances that may be a hazard to health. That means, water should be of good quality, colourless, odourless, tasteless, free of pathogens and poisonous compounds. In fact, Ein-El-Helweh camp suffers of water shortage; many attempts have been made to increase the quantity of water allotted for the camp but to no avail (Sanitation Section, 1997). This may indicate other political reasons behind this policy. The insufficient water supply and low pressure have forced people to draw water directly from mains by using small pumps paying little attention to health matters. This practice associated with the badly planned network resulted in frequent contamination of water supplies (UNRWA, 1996).

Numerous diseases are transmitted through water or due to lack of water, such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, dysentery, hepatitis, and other skin diseases. Sanitation Section of UNRWA carried out laboratory analysis on water samples from camps; however, some reports have shown the presence of polluted samples, and were attributed to the deteriorated condition of the distribution network, associated with frequent stopping of chlorinators of water wells (UNRWA, 1996). In fact, precise information is not available about this aspect in the camp, and if there is some information, it remains in closed circuits, so it will not make any troubles for the official institutions. However, some diseases which have a direct relation to water contamination were spread in some areas of Ein-El-Helweh camp and other camps as well. According to news reports from Borj Al-Shamali camp (As-safir, 1995), about 500 people were infected by typhoid and suffered from headache, diarrhea and high temperature; several teams had visited the camp and reported that water supply was polluted from sewage. In 1996, only 3 cases of typhoid were reported in Ein-El-Helweh camp and 1889 cases of diarrhea among those older than 3 years (UNRWA, 1997). Although cases of hepatitis haven't been reported in the camp recently, the number was increased from 29 in 1975 to 160 cases in 1977 (Saudi, 1979).

The General Director of UNRWA (1995), stated that the problems related to improper solid waste management, quantity and quality of water supply as well as distribution system conditions, have become worse and more critical due to the increasing population growth in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Gaza strip, and West Bank. Moreover, Ein-El-Helweh camp has become a model of poor environmental conditions, overcrowding, and lack of open spaces or green and planted areas. In addition to water supply and wastewater disposal problems, the solid waste collection and disposal is the most urgent, where the quantity of solid waste produced daily in the camp approaches 39 tons (Sanitation Section, 1997). This problem will result in worse problems mainly in crowded areas due to the organic nature of the waste, ugly scenes, bad odours and smells, and the presence of flies and rodents. Solid waste is mainly produced from daily consumptive activities, and it includes food residues, glass, carton, and metals, etc. The high quantity which is produced daily needs continuous collection and disposal to prevent the transmission of diseases. UNRWA (CEHA, 1991) usually appointed 2.5 sanitation labourers for each 1000 camp residents, this means that Ein-El-Helweh camp needs at least a number of 137 workers. In fact the number of available workers in sanitation department of Ein-El-Helweh camp is 44, which is far below the required number. It should be said that the necessary trucks and other equipment should be provided to facilitate the accumulated solid waste collection and disposal.

Finally, it should be said that environmental conditions should be improved in the refugee camps in Lebanon by the help and cooperation between local, regional and international institutions to halt the camps from being transformed into areas of constant poverty and potential source of environmental dangers.

The deteriorated environmental conditions in the refugee camps in Lebanon include problems related to improper solid waste management, quantity and quality of water supply, distribution system conditions, and high population density as well.

The provision of safe and adequate water supply as well as proper waste disposal will reduce the water-born diseases. The water pipes which were laid before more than 50 years, are exposed to contamination from nearby ditches and sewers, and they need replacement. Incidents of water contamination were attributed to the distribution system condition.

References :

1. As-safir, newspaper, 24/11/1995. Epidemic Disease hits Borj Al-Shamali Camp. Beirut.

2. As-safir, newspaper, 27/3/1995. Report about UNRWA in Lebanon. Beirut.

3. As-safir, newspaper, 27/12/1997. Report on Ein-El-Helweh Camp. Beirut.

4. CEHA, 1991. Manual on Water and Sanitation for Health in Refugee Camps. WHO/EMRO/CEHA & UNEP/ROWA. CEHA Doc. No. TLM-1, Jordan.

5. Hoole, P., et. al., 1984. Lebanon 1982- Clearance and Reinstatement of the Devastated refugee camps. Proc. Instn. Civ. Engrs., Part 1, 76, Nov., 871-882.

6. Habitat, 1989. Study on the Reconstruction Needed in the Palestinian Camps in Lebanon. Report of the Executive Director, UN Commission on Human Settlements, HS/C/12/2/Add.3.

7. Sanitation Section of Ein-El-Helweh Camp, Nov. 1997. Personal Contact.

8. Saudi, F., 1979. Health and Social Conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon. Arab Institute of Studies & Pub. Beirut, (Arabic).

9. Sayigh, R., 1996. Palestinian Refugees In Lebanon. Presented to the Annual Symposium of the North American Coordinating Committee of NGOs on the Question of Palestine, held at the United Nations in New York on June 24-26.

10. UNRWA, 1995. UNRWA in Figures. Fact Sheet, UNRWA.

11. UNRWA, 1996. A Technical and Economic Feasibility Study for the New Sewerage Networks and Drainage System in 8 Camps in Lebanon, UNRWA, Beirut

12. UNRWA, 1997. Report of Infectious Diseases, Year 1996. Health Center, UNRWA- Lebanon, (Not published).

13. WHO, 1971. International Standards for Drinking Water, 3rd ed. Geneva.

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