Baghdad residents’ health at risk for lack of water, sewage systems

[Iraq] Young boy stands on the edge of sewage outflow.
Four weeks after the end of the conflict, there's still a huge problem with basic services in Baghdad (IRIN )

When Wafaa Dawood Salman was found dead in August 2007 she seemed no different from the others who had died in Iraq - her body was put in a plastic bag and sent to the morgue for relatives to collect.

[Read this report in Arabic]

Days later it was announced that the 40-year-old woman was the first confirmed cholera case in Baghdad after a national outbreak killed at least 14 people.

Lack of security, corruption, neglect and insurgent attacks have left Iraq's public services in tatters. Limited electricity, a shortage of safe drinking water and rundown sanitation and sewage systems are causing diseases and frustration.

"We didn't realise our drinking water was mixed with sewage until my mother's death," said Wafaa's oldest son, Issam Ahmed Qassim, 24.

"We had stomach aches from time to time over the past four years but we never realised it was related to the water we were drinking," said Qassim, a resident of Baghdad's rundown Kamaliyah area.

Sixty-five percent of Iraqis have no access to piped drinking water and nearly 75 percent have no access to a good sewage system.

Shortage of drinking water

According to Hazim Ibrahim, deputy head of Baghdad's water directorate, the daily need for drinking water for the capital's residents is at least 3.25 million cubic metres, while the actual amount piped daily is about 2 million cubic metres.

''We didn't realise our drinking water was mixed with sewage until my mother's death.''

"We have an acute crisis of drinking water as most of the water pipelines are outdated, having seen more than 30 years of service and some families, especially in suburban areas, depend on cisterns that only bring them contaminated underground water," Ibrahim said.

"The most obvious problem we face is the government's negligence in implementing strategic water projects since 1985. In addition, there is corruption which is the biggest catastrophe in all governmental ministries," Ibrahim said.

A July 2007 report by the relief agency Oxfam and the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Coordination Committee network in Iraq said that about 70 percent of Iraqis were without adequate water supplies, up from 50 percent in 2003.

That includes over two million people who have been displaced inside Iraq by the fighting, which has forced many to live in unsanitary conditions where sewage can infest food and water and easily spread cholera and other water-borne diseases.

According to Khawla Salih Amir of Baghdad’s Health Directorate, at least 200-250 cases of waterborne diseases are being treated each week in the capital’s hospitals.

“They are all poor people who cannot afford to buy bottled water and cannot boil their drinking water because of the soaring prices of calor gas; they are forced to drink directly from the tap,” Khawla told IRIN.

“There is also the problem of sewage seeping onto the streets or even inside houses. That poses a very dangerous and serious contamination problem,” she said.

Photo: IRIN
A street in Baghdad, flooded with sewage water

Baghdad sewage plants

Of Baghdad’s three sewage plants, one is out of action, another is working at below capacity, while a pipe blockage in the third means sewage is forming a huge lake, according to Tahsin al-Shaikhly, the civilian spokesman of the Baghdad Security Plan.

Al-Sheikhly said water pipes in Baghdad, where they exist, are so old that it is impossible to pump water at a sufficient rate to meet demand - leaving many neighbourhoods parched.

Twice a month Jamil Muhsin Hawas, a resident of Baghdad's southwestern al-Ma'mil area, has an additional duty to perform. The 52-year-old taxi driver has to find someone with a tank to collect his family's excreta from a hole in the ground.

"The sewage network in this area was established in late 1970s and at that time the area was so small, but as more people moved in, the network was never expanded to cope with the increasing number of people," Hawas said.

"And so we built an underground hole with cement and an iron cover to gather our sewage and excreta to be collected twice a month for about 75,000 Iraqi dinars [about US$40]," he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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