Dead birds, lizards and slime are routinely found in water tanks. These photos were taken between 2008 and 2011 Image Credit: AHMED RAMZAN/Gulf News

Dubai: Dead animals, sewage traces, bird droppings, slime, mud... this is the sickening reality of your building water tank.

And while you may not be drinking out of it, it's this dirty water you shower or cook with. For all you know, this could be the reason behind your last stomach bug, throat infection or skin rash.

Have you ever bothered to ask your landlord about the quality of water you are getting? Perhaps it's time you did.

Stingy landlords who fail to keep water tanks or pipes clean are exposing tenants to health risks, warned James Day, Managing Director of Smashing Services (SS), a Dubai cleaning company that disinfects thousands of water tanks and pipe networks a year.

Though the main water supply which comes from desalination plants is good enough to drink, its quality erodes as it sits in neglected storage tanks or runs through poorly maintained pipes in residential buildings.

Last September, the decomposed body of a man was found in the water tank of a Karama building a few days after he had committed suicide. The tank was later ‘cleaned' by the watchman using the same contaminated water.

Earlier, in March 2011, the bodies of two murder victims were discovered in a Sharjah water tank. It's not clear how long the bodies had been lying there.

Day, a British expat living in the UAE for over 20 years, said some water tanks have never been cleaned; others had been overlooked for more than a decade.

SS teams have found dead rodents, reptiles, worms, and birds in tanks. Other pollutants like bird droppings, shoes, and building materials have also found their way into poorly sealed tanks. They have also detected traces of sewage and industrial oil spills in a few cases, as leaks from nearby pipes seeped into improperly sealed tanks.

In one case, Day said, tenants of a building in Al Barsha suffered skin irritation after using water contaminated with hydraulic oil. The lubricant had dripped into the rooftop water tank from a mechanical part positioned over it. Cleaners were called in after tenants complained about water quality and health concerns.

Not fit for drinking

In another incident, a sewage leak in the basement pipe of a high-rise had seeped into an underground water tank. The sewage had flooded straight into the tank's ventilation tube, which had been cut short against building rules and left exposed without a protective fitting, Day said.

But health risks continue to brew even inside well-covered tanks. Commonplace is bio-film (bacterial slime), mould, spores, and fungi, besides invisible bacteria.

"We've not come across a tank that did not need cleaning… 99.5 per cent of water is not fit for drinking," Day said.

"We must laud the steps taken by Dubai Municipality and Dewa (Dubai Electricity and Water Authority) to ensure 100 per cent perfect water, water storage and distribution. But the problem is landlords and occupants often don't want to spend the money to clean the tanks and pipes, and fail to follow the stringent cleaning procedures laid down by the Municipality Food Control Department."

It can cost Dh500-Dh20,000 to clean a building's tanks and pipes, depending on the job at hand, he added. To save expenses, the building watchman or gardener is asked to do the task by landlords or occupants, Day said.

"The result is someone who is ill equipped and not trained for the job entering confined unventilated spaces with boots contaminated with fertiliser from the garden.

"There is also a lack of awareness, a false sense of security. People think the tank is good forever once it's put in place. That's simply not true. And what about the time it spent in storage before it was installed, how it was stored, and what might have entered into the tank during installation? Also, think about when you come back from your summer holiday, or move into a new place that hasn't been occupied for months. That water has just been sitting there, in that heat.

"You say you won't drink tap water yet you wash your mouth with it, shower with it, cook with it."

Another problem, Day said, is not getting full access to individual units in apartment buildings on cleaning days. All taps have to be running when cleaning solutions are placed in the internal water supply network, for example.

"There's a layer of bio-film, a slime of bacteria culture, that is practically impossible to remove from pipelines on first clean… You can't use tremendous water pressure to flush it out, or it may break pipe joints. You can't over-chemical it; you have to do it gradually. It takes time and a proper process."

About 40 companies are authorised by the municipality to clean residential water storage and pipe systems in Dubai. Most tanks are cleaned once a year or every six months.

Municipality officials carry out surprise checks for tank water quality. Some tests for chemicals can be done on the spot, like checking the water PH level, others such as bacteriological tests require laboratory analysis. "Again, Dubai Municipality has exerted excellent control measures by permitting only accredited laboratories to undertake this important water quality testing," Day said.

"Dubai Municipality inspectors do cover the entire emirate, but it's a mammoth task that needs the support and awareness of the community"

Most residents drink bottled water or spend a small fortune on home water filtration systems. But many don't replace the filters regularly, leaving them with even dirtier water. A virtual absence of home test kits for water quality in the local market means tenants may have to err on the side of caution when it comes to drinking tap water.

"I don't trust tap water, it tastes funny. I only drink bottled water, you never know what's in your tank," said Z.H., a 33-year-old Pakistani resident.

Sharjah is fining landlords who fall short of water management standards Dh5,000-Dh10,000 if they don't make minimum improvements within 10 days of the time of inspection, done every six months, a report said.

XPRESS could not independently confirm what the rules and procedures are in Dubai; the municipality did not respond to requests for an interview. However, a municipality official said Dewa is the main government department that looks after water supplies, adding that the municipality does undertake water tank checks.

No further details were given.