Iraq: Millions at risk from polluted water

No. 08/196

Geneva/Baghdad (ICRC) - Inadequate health care and water and sanitation services in much of Iraq are putting millions of people at risk of disease, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said today. "There has been some improvement in recent months, both in terms of security and essential services. More people now have access to health services and clean water. But far too many Iraqis still have no choice but to drink dirty water and live in insalubrious conditions," said Juan-Pedro Schaerer, the ICRC's head of delegation for Iraq. "This leads to more sick people seeking treatment in a health-care system already stretched to the limit."

The ICRC is particularly concerned about people living in households not connected to a water network (some 40 per cent of the total, and mainly in the countryside and suburbs). They must either buy water - at an average cost of 50 US cents for 10 litres - or, if they are too poor to do so, collect it from rivers and wells, which are often polluted. Even households that do have piped water regularly experience problems owing to a chronic lack of maintenance and innumerable illegal connections to the network. Furthermore, many Iraqis have to live with the health hazards of uncollected household waste and untreated sewage.

As a result, many people contract water-borne diseases, further straining hospitals and clinics already struggling with a lack of resources. "My daughter is here because she drank dirty water," said a mother at Abu Ghraib General Hospital, near Baghdad. "We have no clean water at home. The only water we get is from the river."

Medical staff are struggling with chronic shortages of supplies and equipment. Dilapidated and sometimes outdated medical facilities lack proper maintenance and sanitation. Electricity shortages are common and many facilities have to rely on back-up generators. Many Iraqis simply cannot afford the treatment they need. Specialized surgery and treatment for diseases such as cancer are often available only in certain hospitals in the main cities.

Water, sanitation and health care are among the primary concerns of the ICRC in Iraq. This year alone, about four million people have benefited from repairs carried out by the ICRC on water and sanitation systems and on clinics and hospitals. ICRC water and sanitation experts are helping the authorities to repair and maintain pumping stations that supply hundreds of thousands of people with clean drinking water. The organization is also delivering drugs and surgical dressing materials to hospitals.

The ICRC has recently been able to expand its presence in the country. "We can better help people because we now have more access to them than during previous years," said Mr Schaerer. "We plan to gradually increase our aid across Iraq. The needs are growing all the time, despite the considerable efforts of the authorities and increased humanitarian assistance."

Mr Schaerer also stressed that the situation of many civilians remains precarious. "Clearly, fewer civilians are dying now than at the height of the conflict," he said. "Nevertheless, men, women and children are being killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks every day. The ICRC reminds all parties to the conflict that they have an obligation under international humanitarian law to protect and respect civilians."

For further information, please contact:

Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC Geneva, tel. +41 22 730 25 90 or +41 79 251 93 18

Hicham Hassan, ICRC Iraq, tel. +962 777 399 614

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