August 27, 2011 01:46 AM
By Annie Slemrod

BURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon: Sometimes personal hygiene isn’t a private matter.“When I shower, my eyes burn,” says Bashir Homato. He scratches his arms from behind the counter at a small shop. “My skin itches.” Brushing his teeth with tap water, Homato says, “[it] makes me vomit.”

Khaled Sahmarani chimes in from a few feet behind Homato. Showering makes him itch too. “I’m 30 years old. After I shower … I look like a 40-year-old man.”

Homato and Sahmarani are from Burj al-Barajneh, Beirut’s most populous Palestinian refugee camp. Here, as in the rest of the country, water is in short supply in the summer. But when the water does flow from taps here, it’s salty. Really salty. And to varying degrees, that’s the case in three of Lebanon’s camps: Burj al-Barajneh, Shatila and Mar Elias.

The salinity is highest in Burj al-Barajneh, according to UNRWA statistics. The wells here measure salinity levels of 12,000-19,000 mg/liter. In Shatila, salinity ranges from 7,000 to 12,000 mg/liter, and at Mar Elias it is 3,000 mg/liter. International standards for drinkability vary, but generally say that salinity should remain under than 1,000 mg/liter.

The water in these camps comes mostly from local wells, according to a UNRWA spokesperson, who says the water in other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon is potable, the scientific term for drinkable.

Nadim Farajallah, a water expert at the American University of Beirut, says the problem of high salinity is not unique to Beirut’s camps, but in fact this problem “is known in most areas around the coast in Lebanon.”

This is especially the case in the southern suburbs and anywhere far from municipal water grids where local wells are overused.

Levels of salinity regularly average above 1,000 mg/liter in Beirut, and some studies have put salinity at 5,000 mg/liter in some areas of Beirut. But the Burj al-Barajneh numbers, says Farajallah, are “pretty high.”

Farajallah explains the reason for the saltiness.

“We are pumping a lot more water than we are putting back in,” he says. This is true especially in the summer months, when there is less rain. “If you are tapping in [to a well] that is being tapped more than refilled, it will have a higher concentration of seawater, and you will get salty water.”

Wafik Qiblawi, who controls the bright red tap that regulates the water pressure for part of the camp, says he can hardly run a brush through his hair after showering. The three of his five daughters who live at home demand that he buy bottled water for them to wash their hair with. And Umm Mohammad, who did not want to give her last name, says, “I wash my vegetables with salty water, and then I buy water to wash off the salt.”

Cosmetic complaints aside, there is a fiscal dimension to this issue. In an area already low on financial resources, water must be purchased for more than just drinking. Umm Mohammad buys her from Abu al-Iss.

As Abu al-Iss zips around corners on a motorized cart full of water jugs, his wife Nada Abdel-Halim mans the store. It has a long sink, several taps, and is crowded with water containers of all sorts. A 5-gallon bottle goes for LL1,250. Abdel-Halim says hers is “not a very profitable business,” but doesn’t seem bothered that her son in law comes by occasionally after a shower and douses himself with a jug of her water.

Qiblawi of the tough hair, demanding daughters, and red tap, shows how the bottoms of the twisting overhead water pipes are corroded. He says the pipes look even worse from the inside.

Water fixtures must be changed regularly because of the high salt content, Qiblawi says. Umm Mohammad agrees, and points to the brown pipes above her kitchen sink. This is another financial burden she has learned to live with. “We got used to it,” she says.

UNRWA’s spokesperson says that there has never been a water treatment system in the three Beirut camps. UNRWA says it has “completed the installation of new water networks including elevated water tanks and water wells” in Burj al-Barajneh, Shatila and Mar Elias, although Farajallah says that at least in the case of the water tanks, “this is just a mode of storage,” and won’t affect water quality.

But UNRWA also says it is “now on the verge of signing an agreement with a donor to install water treatment plants in the three camps in Beirut. The produced water will certainly be 100 percent potable.”

Until then, it is sticky showers and dry hair in Burj al-Barajneh. Or at least for most. Sarah, a 19-year-old with a head full of curly brown hair, grins when asked how she maintains such a coiffure given the gritty water. “I’ve been in the mountains for a month,” she says. “When I wash my hair here, it doesn’t look like this. It looks fuzzy.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 27, 2011, on page 3.

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