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Water by far the most urgent need

Iraq country map.
The latest US offensives have targeted towns in the Euphrates valley (IRIN)

As spring temperatures begin to soar, a serious lack of clean drinking water has been described by aid agencies as the biggest problem facing the war-stricken people of southern Iraq. "In one word I would say that the situation is extremely critical, everywhere," Robert Mardini, the water and habitat regional coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told IRIN from Geneva on Monday.

The collapse of power supplies has led to major difficulties in maintaining supplies of treated water to millions of people in the south, raising the potential for a health crisis. Mardini said if water for the main southern city of Basra and many other southern towns was not treated, it was guaranteed to make people sick as it was drawn downstream from many sewage treatment plants elsewhere in the country.

Disaster in Basra, a city of 1.5 million and the country's second largest city, however, has been averted at least temporarily now that about 50 - 60 percent of the potable supply has been restored thanks to ICRC staff and local engineers repairing back up generators. ICRC had also been trucking water to hospitals in Basra and other areas. But Mardini said there was extreme concern about the situation in towns further north, such as Karbala, Najaf and Nasiriyah which ICRC staff had yet to reach.

Even if treatment plants had not been hit and electricity was available, getting local staff to treatment plants is another big problem. "For technicians from the water board - their priority was to remain with their families. If the station is very far away they will not go. It's a main concern for us to facilitate them the access and to get them to go there," he maintained.

Patrick Nicholson, a spokesman for the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD) told IRIN from Kuwait City that a recent visit to the south of Iraq had emphasised how serious the water shortage was. "It's obviously a major concern, not just for CAFOD but the aid agencies in general, that water is the first, second and third problem." In the southern port town of Umm Qasr at the weekend, CAFOD staff had to give their own bottled drinking water to help doctors make a plaster cast for a 12-year-old boy with a broken arm.

Nicholson said when they were there, the hospital was into its third day without any water being delivered, meaning staff could not treat patients and this was leading to considerable anger. He was also "incredibly concerned" for the people of other towns which aid agencies were unable to get to. "Looking at the situation in Umm Qasr, it must be much worse than that - pretty terrible I should have thought." A lack of security and resources such as water tankers was hampering agencies' work, he added.

A spokeswoman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Wivina Belmonte, told IRIN from the Jordanian capital Amman that the lack of clean water was without doubt the biggest problem facing the people of southern Iraq. "Water at the best of times is a problem. Water at this moment is an even graver problem," she explained.

UNICEF was transporting water to southern towns and gradually expanding the range and amount of its deliveries, including six tankers to the outskirts of Basra. It already had 10 confirmed trucks each carrying 35,000 litres of water and medical supplies going to Iraq on Monday from Kuwait but hoped there could eventually be as many as 20, Belmonte said. The water was going to hospitals and health centers, but she acknowledged aid agencies were unable to supply all needs at present. "It's clearly not enough in southern Iraq and we're not reaching certain children in other parts of the country. The access has to be wider, the distribution has to be bigger."

She said the vital expansion of critically needed water supplies depended on security, getting access to areas and funding.

"What UNICEF needs to do is keep pushing, pushing, pushing, getting supplies in to make the effort wider, bigger, reaching every part of the country," Belmonte maintained, noting that failure to have clean drinking water inevitably meant health problems.

Doctors in the southern town of Zubayr, which UNICEF had reached with supplies, were already reporting an increase in cases of diarrhoea. One in eight children died before they were five, a quarter of children under that age were malnourished and the average Iraqi child suffered 15 bouts of diarrhoea a year, Belmonte said. "We travel to dodgy countries and have a bad glass or water and we get knocked out for days - imagine a child going through that 15 times in the course of a year. I mean, it's completely, completely debilitating."

Norwegian Church Aid has sent three water engineers to Kuwait to help UNICEF water sanitation staff. Programme coordinator Oyvind Nordlie told IRIN from Oslo its staff had already been into Kuwait twice to look at what was needed and were going back in on Monday with equipment such as water storage tanks for Umm Qasr. It had three other water engineers arriving in Kuwait very soon to further strengthen the work being done.

Meanwhile, the Humanitarian Operations Centre (HOC) in Kuwait, a joint US-Kuwaiti government body, says it is working hard to improve and expand water supplies in the south. HOC civil military advisor Maj James Brown told IRIN from Kuwait that the main problem was making areas stable so they were safe for aid agencies to carry out their work. Hindering this was the fact that fighting was still going on in many areas, he said.

"Right now things are obviously not as good as we want them and we're doing everything we can to fix them," Brown said.

The HOC was also continually working to improve the supply and distribution of water to Umm Qasr through a pipeline from Kuwait. "We really are conscious of this as a source that was not available prior to the conflict and it's going to meet part of the need for people in and around the Umm Qasr area to include hopefully Al Zubayr and Safwan," he explained.

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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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