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UNICEF responds to critical needs with water tankers in Basra crisis

UNICEF Image: Iraq, water
© UNICEF/2008/Rubaye
A child waits for water supplied by UNICEF in the heart of Basra’s conflict zone.

By Claire Hajaj

AMMAN, Jordan, 31 March 2008 – For children in an Iraqi city paralyzed by violence, the arrival of a UNICEF water tanker in their street was an unexpected miracle. Thirsty families queued for up to two hours to fill whatever containers they could. For some, it was the first fresh water they had seen in days.

Basra, Iraq's second largest city, has been hit by intense clashes between military forces and local militias. Schools, shops and markets closed and streets were emptied last week. A 24-hour curfew kept families indoors and prevented them from reaching stores to restock critical supplies of water and food.

More than 3.2 million people – 50 per cent of them children – were caught up in the violence, which spread quickly from Basra to Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.

‘Life came to a standstill’

“We were caught by surprise and we were not prepared with enough water, fuel and food stocks,” said Mohammed, a UNICEF staffer living and working in Basra. “From nowhere, life came to a standstill,” he added.

Drinking water quickly became a critical need, particularly in Basra, where families rely on desalinated drinking water collected from shops. As electricity to water treatment plants was cut, existing water supplies in stores and homes were quickly exhausted. Access seemed impossible for humanitarian agencies seeking to deliver more water.

Reports from people in the city and local hospitals, which were struggling to cope with casualties, painted a picture of a rapidly deteriorating situation. In the absence of safe drinking water, a rise in the incidence of diarrhoea (which can be lethal to young children) was a real threat.

“We didn’t know how long the situation would continue – how long we would have to hold out for,” said Mohammed. “Those who couldn’t seize the chance to restock during a brief lull in the fighting had totally run out of water and started to drink the salty and poorly treated water that comes from the tap. Eventually, even that ran out.”

UNICEF Image: Iraq, water
© UNICEF/2008/Rubaye
Some streets in Basra were empty until the tankers arrived, bringing relief in the form of safe water.

Reaching families in need

On the fifth day of violence, UNICEF found a solution. A local UNICEF team worked with a Basra contractor to deliver drinking water through water tankers to families that could be reached despite the curfew.

On the first day of operations, 50,000 litres of safe drinking water reached 1,250 people in five districts across the city. Within two days, the number of families receiving water topped 2,000, and the operation expanded to 17 sites. Empty streets in these areas were soon filled with families waiting for the tankers in the face of threats posed by snipers and mortars, relieved that some assistance had reached them at last.

“It was amazing to witness this in Basra,” said Husam, a UNICEF team leader in city. “Despite the high risk and highly charged atmosphere, the water-tankering drivers were as pleased as the families to work with us because the need was so great and the families so welcoming.” 

As well as reaching families, the operation has been able to fill the water storage tanks of major health centres – including the Basra General Hospital, the Paediatric and Maternity Hospital, and the blood bank – easing the situation inside these facilities and providing a buffer against future crises.

Ready to act for children in crisis

In spite of strikes against its warehouse in Basra, UNICEF was also able to release emergency health supplies – including trauma kits – to the city’s main hospitals in the first 48 hours after a halt in hostilities was declared over the weekend.

“The fighting resulted in large number of injured and sick people in the communities,” Husam said. “The health authorities urgently requested health and medical supplies, so we acted the moment we could access UNICEF stocks. We hope things will keep improving, but at least now they are prepared for any deterioration in the situation.”

UNICEF retains sufficient stocks in Basra and Baghdad to deliver emergency health supplies and water for up to 70,000 families. But as conditions return to normal in Basra, families are not expecting large-scale relief operations. High prices for food and water in the aftermath of the crisis are still a concern – and UNICEF is responding to as many needs as it can.

“The arrival of emergency supplies to Basra’s communities and hospitals under the most dangerous conditions underlines the will and resourcefulness of Iraqis themselves,” said UNICEF Iraq’s Chief of Health, Dr. Alexander Malyavin. “They are ready and willing to act on behalf of children in crisis. All they need is support from the international community.”



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