Iraq: access to clean water could be critical

by Sébastien Carliez in Amman
Access to clean water could quickly become critical for the Iraqi population after war breaks out, the International Federation's head of delegation in Iraq, Sten Swedlund has warned.

"Safe drinking water distribution will be disrupted across the country with life-threatening consequences on the most exposed vulnerable groups, such as children under the age of five and the elderly," he said from Amman, where he was recently relocated for security reasons.

"This will come on top of already deteriorating health and hygiene conditions, severely affected by more than 12 years of sanctions," Swedlund explained. One in eight children in Iraq dies before reaching the age of five - two-and-a-half times the mortality rate of a decade ago - mainly as a result of diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases.

"In emergency times, diarrhoea is one of the biggest killers," says this Federation senior manager, who has worked previously in countries like North Korea and former Yugoslavia.

"People have started to erect water tanks on their roofs at home and stockpile bottled water," Swedlund tells. "Sometimes they have dug wells in their gardens, although the water they pump is not fit for human consumption." These are shallow wells, which do not go deeper than 20 metres. This water carries too much salt and minerals, especially copper.

The main reason for the likely shortage of clean water is damage to the country's electricity network. "Power cuts will affect the water treatment plants and sanitation installations," Swedlund says. At present, there are approximately five million Iraqis, four million of whom reside in Baghdad, who have access to a sewerage network, relying on pumping stations connected to the electricity grid. It is estimated by the United Nations that only 10 per cent of these stations have back-up generators.

According to a recent United Nations report, chemicals required for the treatment of water, like chlorine and aluminium sulphate, will, in all probability, be limited. "Water in Iraq mostly comes from two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which are also used for sewage disposal," Swedlund explains.

With the coming of war, the International Federation had to put on hold its rehabilitation programmes in Iraq, including that of four water treatment plants in the south of the country. Another project combining rehabilitation of primary health care centres with health education in the eastern governorate of Diyala, to be implemented jointly with the Iraqi Red Crescent (IRCS) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was also stopped.

"For the past two months, the International Federation has helped the IRCS strengthen its capacity to assist people made vulnerable should a war break out in Iraq," Swedlund says.

Thirty trucks loaded with non-food relief supplies were brought into the country. This should cater for the needs of approximately 55,000 people in the very first days of a conflict. The items include family tents, blankets, kerosene stoves and heaters, kitchen sets, as well as jerry cans to carry and store water. This operation was made possible thanks to support from the Red Cross Societies of Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, Norway and Sweden, as well as from the European Union's humanitarian aid office (ECHO).

Food supplies were also handed over to the IRCS by the United Nations' Children Fund (UNICEF). According to Swedlund however, food should not be a major problem, at least not in the short term, as families have constituted food stocks at home in anticipation of a war. And the Iraqi government, through the "Oil-for-food" programme, reportedly distributed three-month rations to the population.

Community-based first aid training for IRCS volunteers was organized until a few days ago across the country. "In Baghdad, 20 newly-recruited men and women completed a 10-day course last week," confirms Swedlund, adding that the number of IRCS volunteers has increased from 3,000 to almost 4,000 in the past months.

Besides, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which now coordinates the Movement's activities in Iraq, has pre-positioned relief items and is ready to assist up to 150,000 displaced people inside the country. The ICRC has increased its medical stocks and pre-positioned material for hospitals to care for 7,000 war-wounded, and strengthened its capacity for emergency distribution of drinking water for civilians.