Iraq's Drinking Water Drying Up, Sewage Pollutes Shrinking Rivers
BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 14, 2010 (ENS) - Clean drinking water is an increasingly scarce resource for millions of people in Iraq, according to a new report released today by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The agency says its engineers are doing their best to improve access to safe water in the face of a volatile security situation in some areas and the rising price of fuel, which have put additional strain on already scarce services, as have population growth and displacement.

The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, which supply most of Iraq's drinking water, are slowly dwindling and in some areas can no longer be used as a reliable source.

The Tigris River as it runs through Baghdad (Photo by Tamara Mann)

Across the country, the shrinking of the rivers is having serious consequences on the functioning of water treatment plants. In underground aquifers, the salt content of the water is increasing. This water is often unfit for human consumption or even for agricultural use.

"Reliable access to enough water of sufficient quality remains a major challenge for large parts of the population," said Julien Le Sourd, the ICRC's water and habitat coordinator in Iraq.

"The ICRC is doing its utmost to improve this by repairing and upgrading water supply and sewage systems. We do this in partnership with the authorities and we are also providing training for maintenance staff working in water treatment plants," said Le Sourd.

In many places, the strain is further compounded by a lack of qualified engineers and staff able to maintain and repair water and sanitation facilities.

Many farming communities were hard hit by the drought that struck northern Iraq in 2008. Average rainfall over the past 10 years has been far lower than in previous decades.

In the north, water supply systems fed by springs and shallows aquifers have been depleted and often have less water available to meet demand.

Although rainfall has been better in many places during 2009 and 2010, low water levels continue to affect agriculture production, meaning Iraq needs to import more rice and wheat.

"With less water of sufficient quality generally available, management of the existing resources is key," said Le Sourd.

An ICRC technician at the Al Wethba water pumping station near Baghdad (Photo courtesy ICRC)

On World Water Day, March 22, 2009, the United Nations emphasized the need for the people of Iraq to have access to safe water.

"Better management of Iraq's water resources will improve quality of life for millions," said David Shearer, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. "Water in Iraq is essential not just to life and health, but to agriculture, industry, electricity and jobs for Iraqi citizens."

Only one in five families outside Baghdad has access to functioning sewage facilities. Only one-third of wastewater and sewage produced in Baghdad is treated, with much of the rest discharged as raw sewage directly into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Large suburban residential areas have sometimes developed without adequate infrastructure, and certain sewage treatment plants are bypassed, wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers and lakes. Ditches and ponds filled with foul-smelling polluted water blight many neighborhoods, the ICRC report states.

The UN recently estimated that overall around 83 percent of Iraq's sewage is going into rivers and waterways. As a result, people are getting sick.

"Diarrhea as a result of contaminated water and poor hygiene is one of two main causes of death of children in Iraq," said Sikandar Khan, UNICEF representative in Iraq. The agency, which leads the water and sanitation sector in Iraq reports that in 2008, there more than half a million cases of acute watery diarrhea, including some cholera cases.

Raw sewage in an unserviced area of eastern Baghdad (Photo by MajorHavoc)

Effective water treatment would help supply clean water, but water treatment and distribution facilities are disrupted by persistent power shortages. Iraq is currently producing around 6,000 megawatts of electricity a day, while demand is estimated at 10,000 megawatts, according to the ICRC report.

Health, water and sewage facilities and other infrastructure in many parts of the country still rely on back-up generators to meet their need for electric power.

Water distribution systems that are old or poorly maintained are further weakened by illegal connections and substandard plumbing within households. Leakages cause large amounts of wasted water and frequent contamination.

According to the United Nations, nearly half of Iraqis in rural areas are without safe drinking water. The Iraqi government estimates that 24 percent of Iraqis in the country as a whole, or nearly one in four, do not have access to safe water.

ICRC water engineers were busy in March and April.

Among the projects they completed is an upgrade of the storage capacity for drinking water and water used in the cooling system in Medical City Hospital, Baghdad. The hospital can accommodate 1,400 patients and treats around 10,000 outpatients per day.

The engineers repaired the Hindiyah water treatment plant in Karbala, which supplies water to around 125,000 people.

They installed a large-capacity pump in al Fadhliya water treatment plant, Thi Qar governorate, providing drinking water for 82,000 people.

Sheiks, Iraqi security forces and U.S. soldiers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a water filtration plant in Iraq's Zydon region. February 28, 2010. (Photo by Spc. Daniel Schneider courtesy U.S. Army)

They completed work at the Ashty water station, in Erbil governorate, which provides safe drinking water for around 10,000 people living in nearby villages.

And they assessed, in cooperation with Iraqi Correctional Services engineers, 11 detention facilities under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, evaluating needs and recommending improvements for the delivery of water, electricity and sewage services.

United States armed forces are contributing to the clean water effort. On February 28, U.S. Army officers and soldiers joined officials from the Iraqi Ministry of Water to celebrate the opening of a refurbished water filtration plant near the village of Aqur Quf. The plant will deliver fresh water to the people in the Jeb Dafar and Zydon regions and 4,000 to 5,000 others in the surrounding area.

"The water plant will be paramount in providing the areas around Aqur Quf, which are predominately made up of farming communities, with reliable water to support their crops," said Lt. Col. Mark Bieger of the U.S. Army. The filtration plant is one of three such plants expected to open in different regions of Iraq in the next few months.

But despite these efforts, Iraq is likely to face more water scarcity in the future. The building of new dams and reservoirs by Iraq's neighbor countries is projected to lead to a severe loss in the surface water which contributes to 76 percent of the Tigris and Euphrates' annual flow.

Established in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross is an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance.

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