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Iraq’s water and sanitation crisis adds to dangers faced by children and families

UNICEF Image: Iraq, water, sanitation
© UNICEF Iraq/2003
UNICEF-run water tankering operations have been a lifeline for 200,000 Iraqis struggling without safe drinking water since 2003.

By Ban Dhayi

On World Water Day, 20 March 2008, UNICEF is focusing on the importance of sanitation and hygiene in reaching global goals for safe water. Here is one in a series of related reports.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, 19 March 2008 – Iraq has a large water and sanitation network, but it is in a critical state of disrepair. System failures are a daily fact of life.

Efforts to fix the country’s municipal pipes and treatment plants – damaged by the impact of a decade of sanctions and war – have been seriously undermined by chronic under-investment, frequent power shortages, lack of qualified personnel, illegal water tapping and acts of sabotage.

As a result, less than half of Iraq’s population can claim reliable access to potable water.

Health and hygiene dangers
Sanitation is also a persistent problem. Less than 10 per cent of urban households outside Baghdad are connected to sanitary sewage systems, and where they do exist, there are frequent failures. Operating on limited electricity, idle sewage-pumping stations and treatment plants flood neighbourhood sites and discharge raw wastewater into Iraq’s rivers.

© UNICEF Iraq/2007
Only 17 per cent of Iraq’s sewage is treated before being discharged into the country’s rivers and waterways. Untreated wastewater from Baghdad alone is enough to fill 370 Olympic swimming pools every day.

The situation is creating widespread health and hygiene hazards for children. Iraq’s 2007 cholera outbreak, the worst in recent memory, underlines the dire state of water and sanitation across the country.

While Iraq’s rural areas are the most deprived, water and sanitation services in urban centres are struggling – with violence accelerating the downward slide. Over 600 workers from the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works have been killed attempting to repair these networks since 2005. Their loss has damaged the sector and cut off whole communities from essential services.

‘Sanitation is central to life’
As population movement increases the demand for safe water in many areas without sufficient supplies, funds to expand water-tankering operations are insufficient to meet all the needs – leaving families to resort to rivers, dirty tap water and other unsafe sources to find drinking water.

In the Sab’Qsoor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baghdad, says one elderly resident, “we are deprived of schools and hospitals, we need paved roads so that our children could reach to schools … but our most critical need is water.”

© UNICEF Iraq/2007
On World Water Day, UNICEF and the World Health Organization are calling for a renewed drive to put much-needed resources into Iraq’s water and sanitation sectors.

UNICEF water tanks have been a crucial source of drinking water for over 200,000 Iraqis since 2003. But the need continues to grow. This year, UNICEF Iraq and its partners anticipate tankering 300 million litres of safe water and distributing water and hygiene kits to up to 120,000 families in crisis.

Immediate action on water and sanitation is crucial to securing a long-term solutions to Iraq’s myriad problems, according to UNICEF Special Representative in Iraq Roger Wright.

“Adequate sanitation is central to life, dignity and development in every country, and never more so than in Iraq” says Mr. Wright. “Iraqi families need to see clean neighbourhoods and safe water in their homes before they truly believe that their country’s situation will improve.”




17 March 2008: UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on the urgent need for improved water and sanitation in Iraq.
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