Iraq's water infrastructure largely survived the 15,000 bombs of war, but it buckled under the crazed aftermath.
Looting, lawlessness and unreliable electricity have handicapped or
crippled hundreds of water lines, sewage treatment plants, pumping
stations, and depleted supply warehouses.
In the southern port city of Basra, where ground water is
naturally salty and brackish and water wells are useless, humanitarian
organizations began reporting an alarming shortage in potable water as
far back as April.
Yet, on May 15, the newly arrived chief of the U.S.-led
civilian authority described Basra's water quality as good. "Better
than it has been in years," boasted Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition
Provisional Authority in Iraq.
The pronouncement was in stark contrast with comments from
World Health Organization and UNICEF officials who at that moment were
warning of waterborne epidemics in Iraq's second-largest city.
Bremer's statement points to the problems faced by strangers
parachuting into a foreign country to assess and govern it, aid workers
The Pentagon said he based his conclusion in part on the high
levels of chlorine detected at Basra's water treatment plants. But aid
workers in the field were checking the water lines running into town
and the tap water in residential homes and found no chlorine, only
Geoff Keele of UNICEF believes this was a result of pollution seeping into holes in the line and overwhelming the system.
Some residents on the outskirts of Basra so fear entering the
relative anarchy of downtown to retrieve their drinking water that they
have shot or pounded holes in the main water line that stretches for 10
miles above ground. The holes let in bacteria and polluted groundwater,
UNICEF blames some of the more than 500 breaks found in the
water lines of Baghdad to the "shocks that the bombing sent through the
But Keele said the looting that followed "has created far more
damage than the combat itself." There are lakes of raw sewage in
Baghdad caused by spotty electricity from the damaged and looted power
plants that drive the sewage treatment plants. Emergency generators are
available, but they can operate the plants at about half of normal
'Steep learning curve'
Keele said the United States, Britain and Australia -- the
primary members of the coalition authority -- are working to improve
conditions in Iraq but "have a steep learning curve."
"UNICEF has been in the country and acting on the ground for 20
years," Keele said from his hotel in Baghdad. "The coalition
authorities will have to build those (kind of) relationships, and that
takes time. ... Unfortunately, the people don't have much time. They
are feeling desperate."
From April 28 to June 4, WHO recorded 73 cases of cholera in
Iraq. Sixty-eight of those were in Basra -- 10 times more than WHO
officials found during the same period last year.
Cholera, an infectious waterborne disease, is caused by
bacteria that thrive in heat. Temperatures in Iraq already exceed 100
degrees Fahrenheit, and the hottest months of summer lie ahead.
"Diarrhea may sound trivial to much of the world, but in Iraq
-- and in these conditions -- it can kill," said Hans von Sponeck, a
former chief of U.N. humanitarian missions to Iraq.
Last week, more than a month after WHO first warned of
waterborne epidemics developing in Basra, the Pentagon approved a
private contract to replace parts of the city's four water treatment
Military officials also rehired 2,000 Basra police officers to
discourage outlaws from looting power plants, pumping stations and
supply warehouses. A main pumping station that serves 100,000 people in
Basra was looted of its equipment, wiring, doors, frames, even the nuts
and bolts, Keele said.
Margaret Hassan, country director of Iraq for the humanitarian
group CARE International, sounded unimpressed with the beefed-up
"It's a bit after the horse has bolted, if you know what I mean," she said.
Two of CARE's vehicles have been carjacked, and one of its warehouse guards was shot in May.
Now, emergency crews from UNICEF are in southern Iraq repairing
pumping stations, water lines, sewage treatment plants, and
distributing pamphlets that explain why the water lines should not be
They also are directing a convoy of water tankers and tractor
trailers that began arriving this month with a three-month supply of
chlorine to treat water. That will supplement an emergency supply of
chlorine ordered recently by the coalition authority.
In the first eight months of 1991, after Iraq's water
infrastructure was damaged by the Persian Gulf War, the New England
Journal of Medicine reported that nearly 47,000 more children than
normal died in Iraq and the country's infant mortality rate doubled to
92.7 per 1,000 live births.
People dehydrated by diarrhea and cholera will typically
consume more water. With the main water line in Basra damaged, some
residents are drawing their drinking water from irrigation canals that
teem with the fetid waste from malfunctioning sewage treatment plants.
WHO continued this month to call the water situation in Basra
critical and warned that relief measures undertaken by UNICEF were only
for the short term.
"You can't recall the war, but this issue is a live one. If we
do the just thing and the sane thing and the humane thing, then we can
save a lot of (innocent) lives," said George Washington University
professor Tom Nagy, who traveled to Iraq this winter with a team of
engineering and health professionals.
Nagy's group toured hospitals and water treatment plants to
assess the civilian consequences of war. He joined von Sponeck in
warning the United States about Iraq's fragile civilian infrastructure.
During 13 years of U.N. economic sanctions, pumps, pipes and
other water system supplies coming into Iraq were vetted for fear that
they would be converted into weapons. Sanctions turned Iraqis into a
"society of fixers," said von Sponeck, who resigned his U.N. post in
2000 to protest the sanctions.
"They were always trying to fix stuff that was dilapidated and
should have long ago been abandoned, discarded, replaced. ... The
system was extremely fragile even before the war."