BAGHDAD - Mohammed Hussein Shureida, 40, sets aside a huge portion of his monthly income to buy water from private tankers and protect his family from waterborne diseases that can result from drinking Iraq’s tap water.
“I nearly lost my six-year old son last summer as he developed acute diarrhoea from the bad water we were drinking,” said Shureida, a taxi driver from the Baghdad slums of Sadr city. “Medicines were not easy to get, causing my son to suffer a lot until he recovered and since then we decided not to drink tap water,” added the father-of-three.
Four years after the US-led invasion of Iraq that ousted deceased former president Saddam Hussein, the majority of Iraqis find it difficult to get safe water, despite the fact that the country is blessed with two abundant natural water sources, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Like much of Iraq’s infrastructure, its national water networks have been left to fall into disrepair over the past two decades as a result of Iraq's long economic stagnation under United Nations-imposed sanctions during Saddam’s era.
Since 2003, Iraq’s water problems worsened as the country’s main water treatment and pumping stations were stripped of vital equipment by looters immediately after the collapse of the former regime.
Acts of sabotage damaged infrastructure even further. Municipal water became dirty and contaminated – exposing children to dangerous waterborne diseases.
“Now our main sources for potable water are the private tankers that roam in our district. Although it is expensive to buy water from them, it’s better than getting water with diseases and then having to struggle to get medical treatment," said Shureida. “It costs me something like 150,000 Iraqi dinars [about US $120] per month just to secure good water for drinking.”
Marking World Water Day on 22 March, the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) in Iraq warned that the chronic shortage of safe drinking water could push up incidences of diarrhoea, a leading killer of children in the country.
Children vulnerable to diarrhoea
“Iraq's young children are particularly vulnerable to diarrhoea, which can easily kill or lead to severe malnutrition and stunted growth,” said Roger Wright, UNICEF Representative for Iraq, in a statement issued on World Water Day.
UNICEF launched a water tanker service in April 2003 to help the worst-affected families in Baghdad. Tanker trucks full of safe drinking water were sent daily to the most deprived areas of the capital, Baghdad, and Basra in the south of the country.
Last year, UNICEF tankers reached about 120,000 people per day in Baghdad, delivering 400 million litres of safe water to 10 residential areas, five schools and six main hospitals – as well as to a growing number of displaced families in the capital.
But lack of funds has forced UNICEF this month to halt its water service.
“Latest reports suggest we are already seeing an increase in diarrhoea cases, even before the usual onset of the ‘diarrhoea season’ in June. It is particularly worrying that water tankering services have had to be halted in Baghdad this month due to lack of funds,” Wright said.
Vinod Alkari, UNICEF Iraq’s Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, said that the use of water tankers is “usually only a short-term solution in the aftermath of emergencies. But Iraq is still facing a growing humanitarian crisis. If people are cut off from this critical service, it will push them to the edge of desperation and risk the health of their children.”
The Iraqi government has said that it can take care of the problem without the help of UNICEF.
“Great efforts are being exerted despite all the challenges as about US $650 million is allocated for water projects this year,” said Ayad al-Safi, the undersecretary of Iraq’s Ministry of Municipalities and Public works.
“UNICEF was helping us by providing essential water treatment chemicals like chlorine, but we can manage that as we are establishing 25 water treatment units all over Iraq, treating from 4,000 to 10,000 cubic metres of water every day,” al-Safi added.
However, the government’s efforts to repair water networks have been hampered by continuing violence in restive areas, ongoing electricity outages, attacks on infrastructure and engineering works and under-investment in the water sector.
While precise figures for the number of people, especially children, affected by waterborne diseases in Iraq are not available, doctors are expressing serious concern over the issue.
Dr Rafid Shaker Nazal of the hospital in Baghdad’s Sadr City, where about 3.5 million people live, said that his hospital is treating 50 to 70 people per month for waterborne diseases.
“Gastro-enteritis, brucellosis, hepatitis and typhoid fever are common among the children of this area due to bad drinking water. What makes it more difficult is that medicines are not available and health centres do not have enough qualified personnel,” he said.