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The Olympian, Olympia Washington
Sunday, June 29, 2003
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Iraq's bad water brings disease, alarms relief workers

A woman crosses a sewage-filled street in Kamaliya, a small district of Baghdad.
Gannett News Service
Gannett News Service

The Olympian Online

Operation Iraqi Freedom section

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 say.

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 pollution.

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, Keele said.

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 ground."

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 capacity.

'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 plants.

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 security.

"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 tapped directly.

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.

Fetid canals

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."

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