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Struggle to restore basic services

[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 )

More than a month after war's end, hundreds of thousands of Baghdad residents are still struggling to survive without basic services. Electricity remains intermittent, clean drinking water is unavailable to large numbers of people, and authorities are barely coping with sewage disposal.

In the Baghdad suburb of Adamiya, the director of electric power distribution, Muthanna al-Ubaydi, said the 30,000 people in his sector were now receiving only about six hours of electricity a day. For two weeks in April there had been no power at all.

Muthanna said during the war, many transmission lines from power stations to the city had been destroyed. Of 245 high tension lines only 15 were working now, he said. While damage caused to the local network could be repaired, generating enough power and getting it to Baghdad remained a problem. He estimated it would still be several weeks before the system could be restored to anything like normal.

Another concern was that his staff had not been paid, and had no idea when they would receive any wages. "We have not even received a promise - we are just working for loyalty to our country and citizens. I feel very upset about the situation. We are not used to not having power."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says electricity generation has not improved over the past 10 days, with only 2,200 MW being generated nationwide out of the 10,000 MW needed. It said this raised a serious threat to public health, since it limited the production of safe water, and the risk would increase with the advent of summer.

Meanwhile, sewage-disposal systems are still struggling to cope with the demand from the capital's 5 million people, with 13,000 gallons of untreated waste water and sewage being dumped into the Tigris river every minute.

At the Al-Mansur District sewage treatment plant, staff are only barely managing to keep operating. Their foreman, Mahdi Abd al-Rasul, said two of the station’s four motors and two of its floating pumps were out of action. "If one of the remaining motors breaks down, we will have big problems." What was needed was money and material for repairs and an engineer to help, he added.

Because there was no electricity, the station was relying on its two diesel generators, but already one of these had broken down because of having had to run for 16 hours a day. Moreover, Mahdi said, the station was facing difficulties in obtaining sufficient fuel for the generators. He was also worried about the threat of looters, who, until now, had been kept away with the help of local residents.

Looting is also hindering attempts to repair the city’s water distribution system. Diya Abud, the engineer responsible for the maintenance of the Baghdad Water Authority network, said looters had stolen large quantities of supplies, and it was still difficult and dangerous to reach the warehouse because of armed thieves.

He said it was fortunate that none of the 2,000 km of major water pipes in the city had been damaged during the war, but many of the smaller ones had been hit. In Khadamiya District, 200,000 people had gone without water for two days after a rocket hit a pipe.

But a continuing problem was the lack of electricity. Only about 10 percent to 20 percent of water stations were getting electricity, and even at those that did, the supply was intermittent.

The remainder were forced to used generators, and this cut output by 50 percent, because the generators could not be run continuously, Diya said. Adding to the problem was that fuel for generators and for work vehicles was in short supply.

He warned that as temperatures rose throughout the summer, the problems of water shortages would also increase. Even before the war and the damage it caused, there was a shortage of 1 million cubic metres of water per day in Baghdad during summer, he said.

To complicate matters even further, workers had received no pay for the last two months. "We have had lots of times like this before, but it’s surely very sad," Dhia said, adding that the only help received had been from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ICRC spokeswoman in Baghdad, Nada Doumani, said the city’s structures had collapsed and there was little organisation. She called on the coalition to pay the outstanding salaries as a confidence-building measure, pointing out that the damage caused by the war had only worsened an infrastructure that had been neglected for years. "It’s not like a normal city where you repair something and it’s better. Things here run on the verge of breaking down," she said.

Doumani said that where she was living, there was electricity for only two to four hours a day. And in parts of the city ICRC was still having to truck in drinking water. She said everything in the city was affected by the prevailing insecurity, and residents were becoming extremely frustrated in such a situation.

Technicians and drivers of government vehicles were routinely intimidated or threatened on their way to work, and looting of essential facilities was preventing normal operations. One water plant visited by ICRC recently had had its generator and two main pumps stolen. "Things are not getting back to normal in terms of basic services," Doumani said.

The UNICEF health and nutrition officer, Dr Wisam Al-Timini, said hundreds of thousands of tonnes of raw sewage were being pumped into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers every day because many of the 1,000 treatment plants across Iraq were inoperative due to looters having stripped them.

Supplies of water-purification chemicals had also been stolen or destroyed. UNICEF is trucking more than 2 million litres of clean water into Iraq each day, and importing supplies of chlorine gas and tablets for water treatment.

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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