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Raw sewage threatening health and livelihoods

[Iraq] Plumber tries in vain to fix blocked Baghdad sewer.
Plumber tries in vain to fix blocked Baghdad sewer (IRIN)

Ali Sakran was trying to find a dry spot to place his chair in, away from the contaminated water seeping through the entrance of his house. His wife was holding her daughter, who feels sick because of the water, like many other children in the neighbourhood.

"This water makes us feel sick, it affects our drinking water, our washing and, most importantly, our health," she said. "The children cannot go out to play because of the insects that infest the nearby sewage, and they get rashes and skin diseases. And more than that, the garbage collectors and supply carts, which bring basic supplies to the people, do not come because they use carts that can't go through this filthy and disgusting water easily."

Spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Geoffrey Keele, said the problems with water treatment were of enormous concern. He added it had to be remembered that the country had undergone three wars in 13 years and much of its sanitation infrastructure was completely decayed.

As an example, he said the al-Widha water treatment plant in Baghdad would have to be totally repaired because it had had suffered a complete failure. The estimated cost of this was US
$ 150,000, Keele said. On top of damage caused by the war, looting had been devastating for many water treatment and sewage plants, he said.

The story is the same throughout much of the older parts of Baghdad, such as in Al-Hurriyah, where liquid raw sewage invades the streets and sometimes the houses, making life unbearable. Although most of these districts have an antiquated sewage system, before the war municipal trucks would arrive every week to unblock the system and the rusty pipes.

But this system has now broken down, leaving domestic plumbers as the last line of defence against the encroaching sewage. One of them, Samir Hamid, said: "I never worked for the government, so I only use the same plumbing materials I use when I'm fixing smaller residential homes, I charge 1,500 to 2,000 dinars [US $1] from every household and fix the sewage pipes, but then they start breaking and blocking again in few days' time. People know that it is a temporary solution, but there's nothing else that can be done to resolve the situation."

Ahmad Ali, who works in a bakery on one of the most badly affected streets said: "People are not coming to buy bread any more. They [customers] cannot pass easily to come here, and also they are worried that the bread is spoiled." Many street vendors are also threatened by the sewage, especially those selling food, water and ice, as there is no refrigeration equipment to keep the food from spoiling.

In Baghdad, UNICEF has reported that looting has rendered the important al-Rustumiya water treatment plant largely useless. Repairs that had been done had been destroyed and replacement equipment looted by armed gangs.

This meant that waste water produced by around 3 million people, 60 percent of Baghdad's population, was now being pumped untreated into the Tigris River which also served as a water source for populations further south. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also reported that Baghdad's Abu Nawas water pumping station was continuing to be attacked by looters.

Repair work had started but by the next morning, looters had not only stolen equipment but also destroyed what remained. Keele said ensuring security was critical if aid organisations were going to be able to help repair the devastated sanitation infrastructure.

"If there is no security all of this will be relooted and all of this will be a waste of money and a waste of time," he said. Even before the war, 500,000 mt of raw sewage was being dumped into fresh water sources every day in Iraq, Keele said, including 300,000 mt around Baghdad.

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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