Basra/Amman - 10 May 2003 -The lack of clean drinking water is posing a very real threat in the south to Iraq's most vulnerable population - its children.
Years of underinvestment, over12 years of sanctions and two wars had already left the water system in a bad state. Now, as a result of the latest conflict, many pumping stations and water treatment plants have become the target of looters who are carrying off vital equipment by whatever means of transport they have available.
Along the road from Basra to Safwan, you can see rural communities, desperate for water, illegally tapping the water pipe. "They shoot bullets or knock holes through the joints in the pipe to reach the water," said Kathryn Irwin in Basra. This causes the water pressure to drop preventing the water from reaching the people of Safwan.
In Basra itself, the sewage treatment plant is not functioning properly. Sewage leaves the plant untreated and travels by canal out into the desert. "Along the way, it seeps into irrigation canals that families use for drinking and bathing in," Irwin said.
She added that rapidly dwindling supplies of chlorine gas used to disinfect water further exacerbates the health risk to children. Indeed, the chlorine warehouse in Basra has less than two weeks' supply left.
At Al Gazwian, Basra's maternity and children's hospital, we know that there are many children suffering terrible bouts of diarrhea. One nine-month-old boy has had 15 bouts of diarrhea for the past month - he is extremely malnourished. Now we have 18 reported cases of cholera. "All but one of them are children under five years of age," Irwin said.
"The dirty water equation is a simple one. Young children have developing immune systems and low body weight. Add a bout of diarrhea or cholera picked up from dirty water and you can lose them very quickly."
UNICEF's water team is continuing to tanker clean water from Kuwait everyday with an average of 50 tankers per day. Water engineers are working with local water technicians to install water storage bladders and repair the pumps and equipment of Iraq's dilapidated water system. To treat children with diarrhea, UNICEF has delivered oral re-hydration salts with an extra 200,000 sachets being rushed to the region to deal with any further outbreaks of cholera cases.
In Baghdad, hospitals in Saddam City, now renamed al Sadr City, also report an increase in diarrhea cases. Hospitals are very crowded. Children are often put together in one ward - doctors say this is an ideal breeding ground for infectious diseases.
A UNICEF supply arrived in Baghdad on Thursday night and included 250 cartons of oral rehydration salts. Also in Baghdad, UNICEF is contracting pumping vehicles to clear drains and sewage spills caused by a lack of maintenance to the sewage network. This has become a major problem in some parts of the city and not just in the poorer neighbourhoods. Garbage collection is continuing with 15 trucks per day collecting from high-risk areas.
For further information, please contact:
Geoffrey Keele, UNICEF Iraq (Amman), Mob.: (00962-79 692 6191)
Rawhi Abeidoh, UNICEF Newsdesk, (Amman), Mob.: (00962-79 504 2058)
Anis Salem, UNICEF - Regional Office, Jordan, Mob.: (00962-79 557 9991)
Kathryn Irwin, UNICEF, Basra, Mob.: (00882-166 322 0001)