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Yerevan Hit by Water Bug
Parts of Yerevan have this month faced the threat of a mass intestinal infection after the water supply was seriously contaminated.
Dozens of people have been hospitalised, and there are calls for a public investigation and warnings that the problem may hit other parts of the country's ageing water system.
The crisis began at the end of October, when the water supply to Yerevan's Arabkir and Central districts, home to around 250,000 people, a quarter of the city's population, was mysteriously contaminated. The public was not alerted until 24 hours later. So far, 257 people have gone to hospital with intestinal infections, and thousands more are in danger.
According to the latest figures, 163 of those hospitalised are children. Ashot, who is 12 months old, has been in and out of hospital twice already. Clutching her pale-faced baby, who was having trouble keeping his head up, his grandmother, Susanna Sarkisian, told IWPR that Ashot had got sick when he ate hot porridge cooked with boiled tap water.
"The water supply was never cut off in our house, so we continued to use tap water after boiling it as recommended," said the child's grandmother. "But a few days later the child developed a typical symptom, diarrhoea."
Now Ashot is being fed with a drip for several hours a day. His parents have to buy extra drugs as the dosage of medication available free of charge at the hospital is insufficient to cure the child. "He starts crying every time he sees a white doctor's uniform. Who shall we blame for our kids' troubles and our own?" added his grandmother.
The residents of the two Yerevan neighbourhoods could tell something was wrong by the horrible smell of water, and called in to alert the local water company, Yervodokanal. "We turned off the supply after residents complained," said Richard Walkling, CEO of Yervodokanal, which is managed by the Italian company A. UTILITY. "The fact itself of an emergency is no reason to alert the public. Water emergencies happen all the time."
While admitting something was wrong in the pipes, Yervodokanal at first said only that tap water had been contaminated by rainwater.
"It is ridiculous that the water people only found out the water was contaminated when residents complained," said Aram Sarkisian, parliamentary deputy and leader of the Democratic Party. "Obviously, their quality control services, especially the water testing lab, have been idle."
Two weeks after the accident no definite conclusion has been reached on its causes. The most likely reason, according to Yervodokanal, is that waste from a farm was dumped in the sewers and somehow found its way into the drinking water supply.
Walkling told the press that his company feels "morally responsible" for the accident.
Press spokesman for Yervodokanal, Murad Sarkisian, said of the incident, "It was Sunday night, too late for a public service announcement. Besides, we had no idea what the real scale of the emergency was."
He added that even a day later, not all TV channels announced the emergency as "few realised the gravity of the problem".
Armen Pogosian, head of the Armenian Consumers' Association, also blames government and municipal agencies for failing to respond to the accident.
Amongst those threatened with sickness were both President Kocharian and parliament as both the assembly building and presidential residence are located in one of the two districts involved. "The president was only alerted on the second day, so he could have suffered as well," Sarkisian noted.
Doctors fear the worst may be yet to come in the form of hepatitis A (jaundice) or typhoid, and children are particularly vulnerable. "Theoretically, a jaundice outbreak is a possibility, but it's too early to say. Jaundice has a latent period of about 20 days," said Ara Asoyan, head doctor of the Nork clinical hospital.
Marietta Basilisian, deputy head of the hygiene and epidemic inspection authority, said the situation was now fully under control following a disinfection operation. Vladimir Davidiants, Armenia's head sanitary doctor, now says that water in the two districts is fit for drinking without prior boiling. But locals do not believe him.
"Tap water is no longer the same it used to be," said Anya Petrosian, a pensioner. "I'm not drinking [it] again, and I'm not letting my children and grandchildren [either]. Medics and authorities can tell me it's safe all they want, but I know it isn't."
The prosecutor general's office launched a criminal investigation eight days after the incident. Consumer groups are now lobbying the government to compensate families affected by the loss of water and the need to buy in supplies. The Armenian Consumers' Association has also received 14 formal complaints from citizens.
"This whole matter needs legal investigation," said Armen Alaverdian, a lawyer. "People live in constant fear of raw sewage pouring out of their taps again without a warning.
Armen Rustamian, a pro-government deputy, has called the whole episode a "wake up call" to the government to take the issue of water security seriously.
A senior official in charge of water supplies, Armen Gulian, who is deputy chairman of the government's water committee, is warning that the same thing could happen again somewhere else. He told IWPR that most water pipes in Armenia have been in service for 30 to 40 years.
Armenian prime minister Andranik Markarian admitted, "We have to consider the poor condition of the water system we have inherited. Emergencies like this can happen again as we don't have any proper maps, and we don't know the routes of the drinking water pipes and sewers."
To which Sarkisian responded indignantly, "It's amazing and simply unprofessional for top officials to lay all the blame on the Soviet system. Maybe there were no maps but Armenia has been independent for 15 years and they've had plenty of time to map the water routes."
Meanwhile, water prices are set to rise, leading one Yerevan resident, Alla Ovakimian to comment, "It looks to me as though the Arzny water emergency was a set-up to raise the water rates under the pretext of repairing the system."
Naira Melkumian is a freelance journalist in Yerevan.
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