U.S. struggles to restore drinking water to Iraqis

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 18, 2007 

AL-SADIYAH, Iraq -- The water tankers arrive twice a week in this parched village surrounded by fallow fields stretching into the horizon. The town's wells still pump out a flow, but few villagers dare drink from it unless in desperation.

At the gate of Kayria Fayhan's home, 250 gallons of the trucked-in cargo fill a metal tank for cooking and drinking, sometimes for washing up if itching from the groundwater becomes unbearable.

Even the "clean" water from the tanker is a gamble on some weeks. "They say the water is clean, but sometimes the water is green," Fayhan said. "Sometimes, there's rust floating in it."

Despite the fact that Iraq and U.S. officials have made water projects among their top priorities, the percentage of Iraqis without access to decent water supplies has risen from 50 percent to 70 percent since the start of the U.S.-led war, according to an analysis by Oxfam International last summer. The portion of Iraqis lacking decent sanitation was even worse -- 80 percent.

Now, though, some U.S. officials think they're about to make progress.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using more than $1 billion in reconstruction funds, is building massive water treatment plants in urban areas, including one in the slums of Baghdad's Sadr City.

Construction crews over the last three years, working there under heavy guard, have constructed a treatment plant that will produce an additional 25 million gallons of drinking water daily, enough for nearly 200,000 people. Miles of new water lines are also being installed, allowing 2 million of Sadr City's residents to tap directly into the new plant and existing water supplies.

In Nasiriyah, a $277 million water treatment facility is to be handed over to Iraqis in December. It is billed as the largest facility of its kind in Iraq and is designed to provide clean drinking water for an estimated half-million people in southern Iraq.

As many as 1,500 water treatment and sewage projects have been completed, with 150 more in progress, according to the corps of engineers.

The aim is to deliver an additional 290 million gallons of water daily to the Iraqi population, and nearly three-fourths of that goal has been achieved, according to the corps. "From my travels, I think it's really getting better," said U.S. Navy Capt. Tom Brovarone, who is on assignment in Iraq for the corps.

Oxfam officials remain cautious.

"It's a bit premature to see how these projects will impact the situation," said Manal Omar, a regional program manager for Oxfam in the Middle East, who questioned whether the security situation will allow the new projects to take hold.

Electricity, which is needed to power pumps, continues to be unreliable in many parts of Iraq, causing some taps to go dry because pumping stations and water treatment plants can't operate.

In many parts of Iraq, residents without water must rely on costly bottled water or go searching for a tap to fill plastic cans. Even in Baghdad, especially in its poorest areas, it is not unusual to see women dragging the heavy cans or children splashing water-filled buckets through dusty streets.

When a U.S. Army platoon arrived last week in al-Sadiyah with two flatbeds heaped with boxes and boxes of bottled water, villagers rushed to grab their share, all the while complaining that it was not enough.

"On that hierarchy of needs, water rises to the top," said Maj. Joe Sowers, a spokesman for Forward Operating Base Hammer, a U.S. military installation east of Baghdad, where water-bearing platoons fan out for humanitarian missions in outlying villages.

"We can live without electricity, but we cannot live without water," said Fayhan, the woman from al-Sadiyah.

While water itself is not in short supply -- the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which run the length of the country, have abundant flows -- much of it is not drinkable because of pollution and high salinity.

"A bad taste, a very bad taste," said Hasan Dawood, a sheik from al-Zatia, describing the water that comes from the tainted town wells. "I can't give a better description... It's like drinking tea without sugar. It's very bad."

In al-Sadiyah, a community of about 100 families, the water coming out of taps looks clean enough, but it coats the palate with a thin, slick brine that sometimes smells sour.

Villagers can't say what's in it, but they know what it can leave in the stomach -- that unsettling feeling some U.S. soldiers refer to as "Saddam's revenge."

A recent outbreak of cholera across Iraq has killed at least 14 people and infected 3,300 others with an intestinal ailment spread by dirty water.

Some families with vehicles buy bottled water while in Baghdad. Others wait for the water tanker to deliver free supplies. Bottled water from the U.S. military is too infrequent to be relied upon.

"We go from village to village, when we can," said Capt. Pat Moffett. "We give them water to drink, but we also have to give them water to farm, so they can work."

Villagers confirm the need for full irrigation canals to sprout new crops of watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, wheat and rice, which in many areas haven't been farmed in several seasons.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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