Iraq fights for water in face of sanctions Health and sanitation suffer with crumbling of treatment systems

November 11, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The 6.5 million residents of metropolitan Baghdad no longer expect clean water when they turn on their taps.

Dr. Ghanim al-Mersumi, the chief of Baghdad's pediatric hospital, has stopped drinking water from his faucet. He's worried about getting infectious hepatitis.

"When you open the tap, after two to three minutes you see the mud up to here," said al-Mersumi, pointing to the lower third of his glass of mint tea. "Diarrhea is OK; we can deal with it. Hepatitis, God has to help us."

Eight years of United Nations trade sanctions have reduced Iraq's sophisticated water and wastewater treatment system to a creaking, crumbling heap, say international aid agencies that are trying to help salvage Iraq's infrastructure. And water and sanitation problems are compromising the health of Iraq's most vulnerable citizens, its malnourished children, agency representatives say.

The deterioration of infrastructure is among the key issues in Baghdad's battle with the United Nations over sanctions imposed after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The lifting of sanctions is contingent upon Iraq's eradication of weapons of mass destruction.

In a replay of the February crisis over weapons inspections, Iraq has refused since Oct. 31 to cooperate with U.N. inspection teams. Last week, the U.N. Security Council condemned Iraq's actions, and the United States is talking of airstrikes. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refuses to budge until the United Nations conducts a comprehensive review of the sanctions.

Practical problems

While the politicians and diplomats face off in the international arena, people like Jost A. Widmer are concerned about more practical problems -- the quality of drinking water, the need for sewage treatment, the lack of electricity.

Since the imposition of sanctions in August 1990, Iraq's oil sales have been restricted. Oil revenue that would previously have gone toward maintenance of the country's infrastructure became unavailable. Two years ago, the United Nations allowed Iraq to sell $4 billion worth of oil a year to buy food, medicine and equipment for water and sewage plants.

But the damage was already done.

"You have a certain amount of deterioration, a certain lack of investment, you can reach a critical level where everything breaks down at the same time and you face very serious consequences," said Widmer, an engineer with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad. "How do you run water plants without electricity? Without having assured food, drinking water plus sanitation, your whole health pyramid falls apart."

The Red Cross and UNICEF have been at the forefront of efforts to assess the quality and availability of water to Iraq's urban populations. Since 1993, engineers have been in the field helping to repair, maintain and upgrade about 90 of the 1,500 water and wastewater treatment plants.

Spare parts are difficult to get. They have to be ordered and, in some instances, be custom made. Delivery is cumbersome because the U.N. sanctions committee must approve every order before it is purchased and shipped overland via Jordan.

Since the beginning of the oil-for-food program, the amount of money available for water and sewer projects has increased greatly. The United Nations has approved $127 million in goods and services for water and sewer projects, said John Mills, a spokesman for the Iraq program. Of that figure, about half has arrived in the country.

Health consequences

Recognizing the health consequences of Iraq's failing infrastructure, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan won approval for a hefty increase -- from $44 million to $225 million -- in the amount Iraq may spend to meet water and sanitation needs.

"If we were going to try and address issues like [Iraq's] child

mortality, general health and well-being, unless there was a significant increase in resources available for water and sanitation we would be wasting our time," Mills said.

But the needs often outweigh the resources, aid workers said.

Robert Mardini, a Lebanese engineer employed by the Red Cross, spends his days visiting water and sanitation plants in Baghdad. During a recent visit to the Al Wahda Treatment Plant, Iraqi workers were repairing pipes that line a water filter tank.

Iraq's water comes mainly from the Tigris River. Because it is river water, it must go through a sophisticated procedure to filter out sediment, explained Mardini.

"Some of the technicians have orders to guarantee a minimum quantity of water," he said, "so they bypass the filters and introduce very poor quality of water [into the system]. This is very typical in Iraq."

Leaks, pumps and filters also pose problems. Filters should be flushed daily, but in many cases the routine maintenance occurs only monthly, Mardini said.

At one plant, new pumps arrived that didn't fit well with other parts of the system. The Iraqi workers had to refit all the pipes. It would have been cheaper to forgo the new pumps and overhaul the old ones.

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