Iraq: critical water shortage in Fallujah

From IRIN via Electronic Iraq, Feb. 20:

BAGHDAD – Umm Muhammad Jalal, 39, starts every day walking to a river 7km away from her temporary home in a displacement camp on the outskirts of Fallujah, 70km west of the capital, Baghdad. Because of severe water shortages, she and many others make the daily trip to the river to collect water for all their needs.

“For the past four months we have been forced to drink, wash and clean with the river water. There is a dire shortage of potable water in Fallujah and nearby cities,” Umm Muhammad said.

“My children are sick with diarrhoea but I have no option. They cannot live without water,” she added. “Aid agencies that were helping us with their trucks of potable water are less and less frequent these days for security reasons. For the same reason, the military doesn’t want the [aid] convoys to get too close to some areas.”

Umm Muhammad knows how dangerous drinking water from the river can be with associated waterborne diseases. But she is desperate and needs water to survive.

“Each day we receive less in assistance. The government is not helping us and we have to find our own ways of surviving. I never imagined that one day I would have to drink water from a dirty river,” she said.

Millions of Iraqis lack potable water and live with bad sewage systems, which have increased the incidence of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea.

“The water shortage is a real problem in some parts of Iraq as a large part of the country is desert. But the existing networks have also suffered from lack of maintenance or by being destroyed during the war,” said Cedric Turlan, information officer for the NGOs Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI).

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, only 32 percent of the Iraqi population has access to clean drinking water, and only 19 percent has access to a good sewage system.

Vulnerable groups, such as internally displaced people (IDPs), have had no choice but to drink from rivers.

Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, and Baghdad are the most affected areas for water supply, according to recent reports released by local and international NGOs.

Aid workers targeted

“Aid workers have been targeted in the past few months so our movements have had to be curtailed. The potable water systems in many suburbs of Baghdad and Anbar provinces are destroyed and either you have no good and safe water to drink or you don’t have water at all,” Fatah Ahmed, a spokesman for Iraq Aid Association (IAA), said.

“NGOs are having serious difficulties supporting such families and even when we have a continuous supply of potable water, there are many areas which we cannot access for security reasons, leaving families without safe water,” Ahmed added.

The NCCI and the IAA estimate that around 60 percent of the population in areas like Anbar governorate and suburbs of Baghdad use river water.

“The number of cases of diarrhea among children has increased some 70 percent in Anbar since the beginning of 2006. Among adults, the increase is 40 percent because they are more resistant than infants,” said Dr Khalifa Kubaissy, a paediatrician at Fallujah Hospital, adding that the highest incidences of severe diarrhea were in the Anbar towns of al-Qaim, Heet, Rumana and some parts of Fallujah and Ramadi.

“After analyzing all the possible reasons [for diarrhea], we found that 95 percent of the cases were due to the ingestion of contaminated water from rivers,” Kubaissy said.

The doctor said this problem could only be solved with the provision of potable water to families in such areas. He also warned that an outbreak of cholera, an acute intestinal infection, could happen with the imminent end of the winter season and the onset of warmer weather more favorable to the spread of the disease.

But without an improvement in the security situation in Anbar, specialists say there is little hope of remedial action being taken.

“The situation in Ramadi is critical and no funds are available for the repair of the water and sewage systems. We appeal to the government to take urgent measures to remedy the situation and we also appeal to fighters to stop attacking vital services for the survival of Iraqis,” said Ahmed Muhammad, media officer at Ramadi provincial council.

Corruption and insecurity

Iraq’s municipality ministry said that corruption and insecurity are the two main reasons the repair of infrastructure in Iraq is happening so slowly.

According to Fua’ad Rassi, a spokesman at the Ministry of Municipality and Public Works, the government and a number of international groups – such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), USAID and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) – are involved in an array of infrastructure projects.

However, he said there were areas of the capital and the country which very hard to work in because of the levels of violence there.

“The constant targeting of government employees [by insurgents and militia groups] has delayed the repairing of water and sewage systems in many areas countrywide. Especially in Baghdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi [100km west of Baghdad and the capital of Anbar province] and nearby cities, the situation is more dangerous because they are hot spots,” said Rassi.

“In addition to this serious problem is a lack of funds for infrastructure projects and with millions of dollars lost in corruption, our work is getting harder each day,” Rassi added.

In areas of Baghdad, clean water is scarce. Doctors say they are seeing more and more cases of diarrhea. For ordinary citizens having to put up with violence, displacement and poverty, contaminated water is compounding their desperate situation.

“My four children are sick with chronic diarrhea. The doctor told me that it is because of contaminated water. I don’t know what to do because I cannot afford to buy bottles of clean water for my children,” said Sahira Saleh, 41, a resident of the Sadr City district of Baghdad.

“It is hard to say this but years ago I was praying for the death of [former president] Saddam Hussein, but today I wish he could come back to life and was in power again because at least in his time we used to have safe water, good sewage systems, had food to eat and our children never got diarrhoea,” she said.

See our last posts on Iraq and struggles for control of water.