Contaminated Water May Be Biggest Killer in War

April 1, 2003
UNICEF Receives $8M for Water from the U.S.

Contaminated water in Iraq may end up being responsible for more deaths during the war than those caused by weapons. "This conflict will have more people dying from water treatment plants going down than from the war itself," says Geoff Keele, a spokesman for UNICEF.

Cities along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers report no water shortage but the water is polluted. These rivers supply almost all of Iraq's municipal water. The electric-powered water treatment plants and pumping stations, vital to the population's health, already were in disrepair before the war began.

Iraqis dump 500,000 tons of raw sewage a day into the Tigris, Euphrates and key tributaries. Loss of power and damage to water treatment plants is directly linked to outbreaks of cholera and a malaria-like condition that Iraqis call "black water fever."

Iraq citizens fear crises such as the one in the southern city of Basra where damage to the electric power grid shut down the water-treatment plant immediately after the ground war began. Most of the city's 1.5 million people had no access to safe water for four or five days. After a week, only half the city had service restored. Combat there remains heavy, making it impossible for engineers to restore service. British forces stretched a pipeline from Kuwait into southern Iraq, but the water doesn't reach as far as Basra.

The country's water problems have become increasingly severe over the past decade because of the crumbling infrastructure ignored by the government. "The water purification and distribution systems of Iraq are very dilapidated," Keele says. "The pipes are crumbling and the sewage treatment plants are in dire repair."

Officials fear repeats of the Basra crisis in Baghdad and other cities. They warn of potential waves of diarrhea and other diseases that will hit children and the elderly particularly hard, causing some to die.

Before the war, more than 5 million people, about 20 percent of Iraqi's population, lacked access to safe drinking water. "The main problem is that unclean water is leading to severe malnutrition in children, particularly in infants," Keele says. As a result, bouts of diarrhea in an Iraqi child have risen from an average of four per year in 1990 to 15 per year in 2002, Keele says. Diarrhea is the leading cause of malnutrition because children are unable to retain fluids and nutrients in their bodies.

"We have children in Iraq who already were malnourished before this war," Keele said. "They are far more susceptible to disease now if they lose access to treated drinking water. There are 100,000 children in Basra at risk for severe fever and death because one treatment plant stopped functioning."

In response to these conditions, the U.S. government gave $8 million?a one-year grant from the the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)?to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to provide basic health, water supply and sanitation services to Iraq.

Bush administration officials say the money will allow "immediate attention" to repairing key infrastructures and meeting basic household needs. The grant will help UNICEF provide basic health services to Iraqis, with a focus on women and children. Iraq's child mortality rates have more than doubled in the past century and some one third of Iraqi children in the south and central regions of the country suffer from malnutrition. It will also provide funds for essential medicines, vaccines and micronutrients.

Aid groups such as UNICEF try to prepare for the consequences of such disasters as in Basra. UNICEF has 40 trucks in Kuwait at the border with Iraq, prepared to deliver about 80,000 gallons of water to Basra as soon as the city is safe to enter.

American troops are not dependent on Iraq's water system for their needs. Military supply convoys carry tens of thousands of gallons of water in trucks from Kuwait. As the United States has gained access to rivers and lakes, the Army has set up reverse osmosis water purification units, which can produce sufficient supplies of drinking water for troops.

Source: Environment News Service and USA Today

Photo 76657323 © Belish |
Photo 4133673 © Leigh Prather |