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Basra's pivotal issue - water

"Mister, water, water." Take a walk down any street in Basra, Iraq's main southern city, and that's the chorus you will hear wherever you go. The second-largest city in Iraq with its 1.5 million residents has been struggling for a month now to receive any - even marginally - potable water, ever since water-purification and pumping stations were hit by the war and the ensuing mayhem. And as daily temperatures here rise well into the 30-degree C range, emotions are starting to boil over.

"We have no water in our homes. You have to save us from these problems. We have suffered from this," a Basra resident, Sami Idris, declared. He said water convoys often only reached the southernmost towns of Umm Qasr and Safwan, and he felt Basra's residents had been forgotten.

The severe shortage is obvious, with people gathering with any kind of container to collect water - from broken pipes, polluted canals and the Shatt al-Arab river.

All of them wonder why they have to put up with this situation when life was meant to be better after the war and toppling of Saddam Husayn. "No water, clean water. Why dirty water?" Jihad Abd al-Salam questioned in Basra's city centre. "No water in pipe - some people can buy, but some people cannot. No money," he said in frustration.

And some of the clean water which aid agencies have managed to distribute in southern Iraq is already turning up for sale on the black market. People short of money are selling their bottled water rations and then take the risk of drinking unpurified water.

A street seller, Ahmad Jabir, stands beside several cartons of bottled water he bought from residents in Umm Qasr and Safwan, and is now selling for up to US $1 a 1.5-litre bottle. He has a ready market with people having few alternatives if they want to avoid getting sick from drinking untreated water. And in a country where most people have suddenly lost their jobs, Ahmad has no qualms about profiteering from aid distributions.

Husayn Ali Tayih is one Basra resident who has been forced to buy what he calls "Red Cross water". While he reluctantly accepts the reality of having to drink unpurified water, he will not let his one-year-old son Ali do the same.

Nearby, at central Basra's main water-purification plant, workers are doing their best to supply residents. Right now, they have been forced to pump water directly from the adjacent Shatt al-Arab river, because the main water source from near Nasiriyah has been disrupted.

The water from the Shatt al-Arab is a worrying greeny-brown colour when it arrives at the plant, but after treatment is at least suitable for washing. But sufficient drinkable water, it seems, is something the residents will have to wait for - and maybe for some time.

Salih Kathir, the assistant manager of the water-treatment plant, maintained that with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the situation was slowly improving. But nobody at the plant could predict how long it would be before sufficient supplies of potable water would be available again, and few believed it would be soon.

Adding to the problem was damage to distribution pipes and the state of the water system in general, which was old and poorly maintained, Salih said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is continuing to bring tankers of water to the city from Kuwait. Stig Bell, a water specialist, said in Kuwait City that 10 tankers had gone to Basra on Thursday, and it hoped to increase this number to 20 by Saturday.

Bell said UNICEF was well aware of the problems affecting Basra, and acknowledged that the situation for its residents was critical, but had not yet been able to assemble accurate information as to which areas of the city were in greatest need.

This was partly due to security concerns, which also meant that UNICEF was unable to transport water right into Basra, Bell 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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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