Danger of another cholera outbreak looms in Yemen capital

Danger of another cholera outbreak looms in Yemen capital
7 min read
08 March, 2019
Sewer damage prompts closure of Sanaa's main road, with officials saying the capital is at risk of a new cholera outbreak, reports Naseh Shaker.
Residents, police and passers-by have all expressed concerns about the offensive odour [Naseh Shaker]
It's been more than two weeks since sewers began overflowing on Al Sayila Road near Sanaa's historic Old City. Officials here say the sewerage system is at the end of its serviceable life and NGOs are mobilising accordingly.

Residents, traffic police and passers-by have all expressed concerns about the offensive odour. There is an added risk - that sewers may burst at any time in any place in the capital, according to an official at the Local Water and Sanitation Corporation (LWSC).

The sewers on Al Sayila road, so close to the Old City's western ancient clay wall, first burst on February 15.

Wastewater treatment engineers on the scene said the flooding of raw sewage onto the street posed a great threat for inhabitants of the Old City of Sanaa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Local resident Mohammed Al Jabli was crossing a footbridge over al-Sayila road, with his son and two daughters, holding their hands over their noses because of the offensive odour.

The bridge had, before the war, been a tourist stopping site as a photo opportunity with the Old City of Sanaa.

Sara Nyanti, UNICEF's representative in Yemen, told The New Arab that in collaboration with the Sanaa LWSC, the UN agency had secured the services of a specialised company which has experience in working on heritage and historical sites.

Looming catastrophe

Mutahar al-Marwani, director of Sanaa city's health office, said the situation may lead to an environmental catastrophe.

"The overflowing of sewers is one of the main reasons for environmental pollution, and the spread of epidemic and pandemic diseases such as Cholera," Marwani told The New Arab. "Citizens should exercise caution and care."

On Saturday, Saba, the Houthi-run state news agency, said Yemen's Minister of Water and Environment, Nabil Abdullah al-Wazeer, and UN Resident Representative Lise Grande and the new UNICEF Resident Representative Sara Nyanti had inspected the ongoing drainage project on the Al Sayila road.

Nyanti told The New Arab that the United Nations Resident Coordinator Lise Grande was very much impressed by the quick response of UNICEF and Sanaa LWSC technical teams to contain the situation.

Grande confirmed that UNICEF had coordinated with the Ministry of Water and provided UNESCO experts and engineers to help preserve the historic site in parallel with the reforms that the city's sewerage system desperately needs. 

"She was also very happy that UNICEF would be seeking UNESCO advice during project implementation considering the historical nature of the site," Nyanti said.

Grande gave a commitment to local authorities to support securing the funds required to complete the rehabilitation of sanitation networks in the old city.

"UNICEF will seek advice from UNESCO during all stages of the rehabilitation projects," Nyanti said.

Completion of its useful life

Nyanti said the organisation had taken major steps to prevent of overflow of sewers.

"UNICEF has taken strong steps to address the weaknesses in the sanitation networks in the old city, which is a UNESCO-declared heritage site," Nyanti told The New Arab.

"Throughout 2018, UNICEF supported the LWSC to minimise the load on the main sewer transmission pipe through the removal of excess sewage by vacuum suction trucks. 

"This activity has prevented the overflow of sewage water in the streets and ensured a healthy living environment in the Old City. However, in early 2019, the main sewage pipes started to collapse in the western side (Al Saela), as well as in the eastern side of the Old City."

Adel Miewadhah, general director of technical affairs at Sanaa's Local Water and Sanitation Corporation (LWSC) said the sewer lines had collapsed due to their age. 

Speaking to The New Arab at the site of the burst, Miewadhah said the LWSC had begun installing new sewerage systems in the area: "We finished on Friday night... there's only the returning of the stone step pavement of the Al Sayila road."

While the Houthi-run Saba news agency initially reported - then deleted from its website - claims that "subversive elements" had sabotaged the sanitation systems in the capital, Miewadhah, said the sewer had reached the "completion of its useful life".

"Nearly all [the sewer lines] are made of Asbestos, which has a lifespan of 30 years. It was installed in 1983. So it's normal [for the lines] to collapse," he said.

'Exploring longer term solutions' 

UNICEF's Sarah Nyanti told The New Arab they were now "exploring longer term solutions" to comprehensively address sanitation in the Old City.

"These [new] lines are a temporary solution," said Miewadhah of LWSC. While the "emergency maintenance intervention" is funded by LWSC, "it's expected that UNICEF is going to fund this project subsequently".

Nyanti confirmed that "UNICEF, in collaboration with the local authorities, have provided support to the LWSC for the replacement of the collapsed sections of pipes".

Nyanti stressed that UNICEF will also be seeking advice from UNESCO during project implementation.

"Given the high cost of this intervention, a phased approach will be used to progressively replace and strengthen the sewage network - starting with the sections that are most damaged. 

"The company is currently assessing the overall situation of the sewage network in the Old City and will come up with a plan to replace defective pipes using a phased approach," Nyanti told The New Arab.

Concerns of repeated Cholera outbreak

Sanaa has already faced one emergency combating Cholera, from which it has yet to fully recover. According to the WHO, between 2016 and 2019, "the number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen had surpassed 1 million".

Since April 2017, 1.2 million suspected cases had been reported, with 2,510 deaths.

"UNICEF is working with local authorities to prevent, or at least limit, the occurrence of sewage overflows in the old city while exploring longer term solutions," said Nyanti.

"If no measures are taken, overflow of sewage can indeed contribute to an increase in the risk for Cholera outbreak in and around the Old City, and this is something we will invest all our efforts to avoid."

The Cholera outbreak was a direct consequence of the years of heavy conflict, read a statement from the WHO and UNICEF in June 2017. It's now almost four years since the war broke out, and the health system is further deteriorating, with public servants paid only sporadically.

Ubaid Sahlol, another resident of Sanaa's Old City expressed his concern over the sewers.

"It's sewerage that had caused outbreak of Cholera and other diseases," he said. If not contained properly, the latest overflow will likely cause a new resurgence of Cholera, he added.

"You watch, now civilians and traffic cops are using protective covers on their noses, due to the smells of sewage."

However, Mutahar al-Marwani, the director of Sanaa city's Health Office, says no steps are needed to contain the issue, urging residents to call an ambulance for any suspected Cholera cases to be taken immediately to the nearest medical centre.


Each day, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who wish to travel between Sanaa city's districts pass along Al Sayila road. The route divides Sanaa into two parts, from the presidential palace in the south to near Sanaa International airport in the north.

However, many drivers have now found themselves stuck on nearby streets including Bab Al Yaman, Tahrir Square, and Shu'aub.

At Al Qiyadah street - which connects Tahrir Square with Hasabah - drivers of taxis, buses, and even motorcycles were stuck in congestion caused by the leaking sewage.

Traffic police had closed off Al Sayila road to help emergency maintenance teams replace the sewer lines.

Ali Abdullah al-Madwani, the driver of a mini bus between Tahrir Square and Hasabah, told The New Arab that rush-hour traffic had been particularly hard-hit.

"For traffic in Al Qiyadah turn, there was high traffic jam last week," Al Madwani said. "We had been stopping for half an hour, waiting for traffic lights," he noted.

Al Sayila is considered a highway that "absorbs most of the Sanaa city cars" traffic officer Lieutenant Abdul Aziz Al Quhali told The New Arab.

"The civilians and drivers' cooperation is very important for us," he noted. 

Naseh Shaker is a freelance journalist based in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Naseh_Shaker