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Lack of safe water endangers the health of Baghdad’s most deprived children

© UNICEF Iraq/2007
Families struggle for access to safe water in the rundown Baghdad neighbourhood of Sab’ Qsoor.

By Claire Hajaj and Ban Dhayi

World Water Day, 22 March, is an international day of action to draw attention to the lack of access to safe drinking water in the developing world. Here is a story on water concerns in Iraq.

AMMAN, Jordan, 21 March 2007 – For thousands of Iraqis living in crudely built cabins in the Baghdad slums of Sab’ Qsoor, a safe drink of water used to be almost impossible to find. The area has only a few pipes to supply municipal water, and many of them are broken or contaminated.

As a result, most families had no alternative to stagnant streams, puddles or uncovered wells to quench their thirst. That changed almost four years ago, but now the people of Sab’ Qsoor face a new water crisis.

Drinking from untreated sources

“We tried to buy water from private tankers but it was too expensive to keep up,” says Faleeha, a 44-year-old mother of six children, recalling the prior situation. “It cost us 1,000 Iraqi dinars [about 78 cents] for just 200 litres. This is enough to drink but not to wash. My children often went to school without even washing their faces.”

Sabiha, who lives next door to Faleeha, faced a similar struggle. Her children would regularly walk across town to fetch water from a ditch. The reward for their long trek was, more often than not, illness brought on by diseases that thrive in untreated water sources.

“One of my sons suffered from acute diarrhoea and had to stay a whole month in the hospital,” says Sabiha. “It affected the rest of my family because I had to stay with him all the time.”

A land between two rivers

Safe water should be available to everyone in Iraq. The country is blessed with two abundant natural water sources, the ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But national water networks have suffered grievously as a result of Iraq’s long economic deprivation and have been allowed to fall into disrepair.

Even before the Iraq war began in 2003, millions of people were struggling with broken pipes and faulty systems. But since then, Iraq’s water problems have multiplied.

In the chaotic aftermath of the initial conflict, Iraq’s main pumping stations and water-treatment plants were stripped of vital equipment by looters. Acts of sabotage damaged infrastructure even further. Municipal water became dirty and contaminated – exposing children to dangerous and health-sapping waterborne diseases.

Diarrhoea, a common consequence of drinking unsafe water, is already the second biggest killer of Iraq's young children and contributes significantly to malnutrition rates.

Water tankering services halted

To help the worst-affected families, UNICEF launched a water tankering service in April 2003. Tanker trucks full of safe drinking water were sent daily to the most deprived areas of Baghdad and Basra.

Last year, UNICEF tankers were reaching approximately 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.

But water tankering services have now been halted in the Iraqi capital. Funds for the operation have run out.

“Water-tankering is usually only a short-term solution for the aftermath of emergencies,” says UNICEF Iraq’s Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Vinod Alkari. “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.”

Safe water equals hope

UNICEF is asking for support to continue Iraq’s water tankering operations for another 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, UNICEF is working with its UN partners and the Government of Iraq to boost the country’s investment in the water sector – and thereby improve its capacity to meet the needs of its own population.

For Faleeha, Sabiha and the other mothers of Sab’ Qsoor, water tankering means more than safe water to drink. It gives them hope that they have not been forgotten, that someone still cares about their needs.

“God has sent UNICEF to save us with a free water supply,” says Sabiha. “I do not want to send my children out of the home for water again.”




21 March 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Sabine Dolan reports on water tankering operations now in jeopardy in Baghdad’s rundown Sadr City neighbourhood.
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