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Household waste causing health hazard

[Iraq] Stagnant water supply in Baghdad.
Rotting household waste is a hazard all over Basra (Mike White)

Solid waste found all over Iraq's southern city of Basra is causing a mounting public health hazard. UN-HABITAT estimates that in two of the city's poorest districts alone, Hayaniah and Al Qubla, 132 mt of household rubbish are being dumped every
day by a population of 300,000 people. Experts can only guess at the total amount produced each day by the city's 1,300,000 inhabitants.

Even before the war, rubbish collection systems in the city were struggling to cope. With a lack of resources, trucks and management, people often had to make their own arrangements. "Even when Saddam Hussein was in power, they were paid to take away the rubbish but they didn't bother," Majed Hassan, who lives in the Al-Jamhoriyah district, told IRIN.

Since the war more than a month ago, the system has completely broken down, leaving mounds of rotting, smoking piles of rubbish lining the city's streets, footpaths, rivers, canal banks and ditches, in average daily temperatures of 35 degreees.

"We all leave all our rubbish over there on the footpath," said Hassan. "Some of it gets burned, the rest just rots there," he said. By the beginning of June, daily summer temperatures will have soared to over 50 degrees.

While people in the poorest districts throw their rubbish onto their own street corners, those who can afford it pay 500 ID (US $25 cents) to have it dumped outside the city. "Wherever they can, in any empty area," says Mudher Na'amah, an engineer working with UN-HABITAT.

Some of it is burned, or removed by scrounging children - while most of it festers on the side of the roads. Either way, the city and its environs are filthy and increasingly dangerous. "It is very simple. It's resulting in diseases and different sicknesses. Kids are playing in it every day," Fraiji told IRIN.

Add to this the raw sewage covering many of the city's poorest streets, and the gravity of the health hazard become apparent.
"It's there every day, summer and winter. Our children play in it every day," said Hassan.

"Of course they play in it, parents can't watch their children twenty four hours a day," said Adnan Omram, another resident of Al Jamhoriyah. "Where else are they going to play?" Both men agreed that many children in the community suffered from diarrhoea. "They get diarrhoea, they go to a doctor and take medicine and three or four days later they have the diarrhoea again" said Omram.

"There is no education here, no advertising in these poor places. No one is telling children not to play in it - they don't know," added Hassan. Since before the war only one of the three "settlers" in Basra's main sewage station - which separates solid waste from liquids to make compost - have been working due to a lack of equipment.

Much of the city's sewage doesn't reach the main station anyway. The lack of available pumps means that the suction power necessary to move the sewage from people's homes is missing, so it stagnates in ancient pipes. Adding to this, the local authority trucks needed to remove and clear the blocked material - which would in any case be dumped into the city's canals and rivers, which people drink from - have all been stolen.

The result is untreated sewage flowing onto the city's streets daily through drains and manholes. Not only that, but the corroded, broken and rotting pipes are also leaking sewage into the ground, which is seeping into the city's water supply through pierced and broken pipes.

While experts are clear on the steps needed to break the inevitable cycle of contaminated water, ignorance, ill health and in some cases death, they are less clear on when they will be able to put theory into practice, by buying the necessary pumps and equipment to solve the problem.

"We have enough qualified people - the problem is not technical capacity. The Iraqis know what the problems are, during the twelve years of sanctions they acquired a deep knowledge of their system," Fraiji told IRIN. "We have the expertise, we have identified the problem, we have identified the solution - what we do not have are the resources," he added.


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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