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Safe drinking water among highest concerns in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a small kitchen that's barely 4 feet long, Nada Abdu al Amir is boiling water again. On one burner, a large soup pot bubbles with her family's drinking water. In another, she's trying to sterilize her daughter's baby bottles.

The family's tap water appears normal, if not crystal clear. But Abdu regularly holds small glasses of water up to the sun to look for any signs of debris.

"If we have enough propane gas, we boil the water all the time," she said. "But no matter how much we boil the water, the children are still getting sick."

Sma, her 2-month-old girl, has had diarrhea for 20 days. The infant is visibly uncomfortable and squirms and wails as her mother cradles her against her chest; her skin is sallow.

"When she was born, she weighed 4 kilos (8.8 pounds)," Abdu said. "But because she has diarrhea, she has lost weight and now she only weighs 3 kilos. Please tell Bush to improve our conditions. There are many, many problems, but the first problem is water."

Iraqis are worried about everything from personal safety and long-term security to unemployment, salaries and whether they will have a voice in the yet-to-be-established interim government. But when asked what their No. 1 problem is, many Iraqis—particularly women—said the safety of their drinking water.

Iraq has had serious water and sanitation problems for a long time; not all of them are war-related. Under Saddam Hussein, the water system was centralized: Water treatment plants depended on a central authority to pay workers' salaries and provide chlorine and spare parts for equipment. But U.N. economic sanctions often made it hard to get replacement parts, and the infrastructure is in dire need of repair.

Humanitarian groups are growing more concerned about the water, as Baghdad's stifling summer temperatures will climb higher in late June and July. People use more water in the searing summer months, and need to drink a lot to stay hydrated.

"The problems we've seen are fairly universal," said Megan Chisholm, an emergencies program director at CARE, a humanitarian group that's had a presence in Iraq since 1991. "The infrastructure is degraded. The stations are not pumping water at full capacity, and there are holes in a lot of the pipes that make them susceptible to groundwater contamination. So even if the water is safe when it leaves a water treatment plant, some people are getting sewage at home."

The El Rustamiyah sewage treatment plant in south Baghdad survived the bombing during the recent war. But it's been looted: Wires snake and snarl to nowhere, control panels are smashed and a large generator was pulled halfway out the door and now lies on the ground, useless.

American soldiers are guarding what's left of the plant, and some Iraqis have been hired to watch over it as well. Every day, children arrive on donkeys loaded with 20-gallon jugs and take water from an exposed pipe. They say it's clean, but it's impossible to determine if or how much the water has been treated.

"The looters came by the hundreds," said Faisal al Jubari, who oversees six security guards at the plant. "They came here at night, and by April 10 everything was gone. Now the sewage is going directly into the Tigris River."

The Diyala River is a tributary of the Tigris. The stench of sewage is strong as you make your way down the muddy riverbank to the place where waste is spilling into the river. Gallon after gallon of dirty gray water tumbles from a pipe, then quickly flows downstream. Across the river, a family is gathering water in jugs and buckets.

Pools and small lakes of backed-up sewage also can be found in Baghdad neighborhoods.

"Sewage is backing up all over town," said Geoffrey Keele of UNICEF Iraq. "When the regime broke down, the entire civil government broke down. The coalition has to get this operating as fast as possible."

The Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-led staff charged with rebuilding Iraq, and numerous international aid organizations are working to improve the situation. The Japanese government is funding the rehabilitation of 41 sewage-pumping stations, and other groups are bringing in tanks of water.

UNICEF sent 30 teams to investigate the water situation in southern Iraq. While testing the water in Basra, the teams found that a third of the sites they visited had no water at all: People had made holes in the pipes to steal it.

In El Washash, one whole street is a virtual canal of fetid water and rotting garbage, and students pass it every day on their way to school. Neighbors whisper about cholera and children who've gone to the hospital.

"I took my 1-year-old daughter to Saddam Hospital because she drank the water and got sick," said Etimad Munrer, who knows to boil water but points out that cooking gas is expensive or requires waiting in long lines to get, so she can't boil water all the time. "I heard that a 7-month-old child died of cholera yesterday. We cannot accept these conditions."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-WATER