Water shortage worsened by thieves

Broken generators, idle pumps and thousands of holes in pipes

War In Iraq

April 20, 2003|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BASRA, Iraq -- The thieves come brazenly in daylight, hauling off their cargo on carts and in buckets. Nearly everyone in Basra is stealing water.

The water system failed when looters stole parts from electricity substations after the British took the city 13 days ago. The pumps could not run, so people broke open pipes to take water, and what had been a simple problem suddenly became a lot more complicated to fix.

"If people stopped stealing, we could get it back to the prewar status quo in five days," said Andres Kruesi, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross sub-delegation in Basra.

But so many people are siphoning water that engineers have had to send high-salinity river water into the system to keep it flowing. More than half the population has running water, but it is undrinkable. About 40 percent has no water at all, compared with about 15 percent before the war.

British military officials say that more than 200,000 gallons of drinking water is being distributed daily in this city of 1.5 million -- much of it from Kuwaiti tankers under British guard. But locals still stop reporters in the street to tell them in English the one thing they need most: "Water!"

The problem reflects the high expectations Iraqis have of the coalition forces, and the complexities of meeting those expectations quickly. In Basra, the water stopped when the British took the city, so many people blame them, Kruesi said.

As the fighting erupted around Basra, the city's chief water engineer, Jabbar Al Haidary, said he drove out to the main plant. But the plant was in the south, in the area of heaviest fighting, so the only way there was to drive toward the British as shells and mortars rained down.

"The situation was very difficult because there was a lot of bombing and shelling," Al Haidary said. "It was a bad situation, but I was laughing. We were working on the water, so why were they shooting? I had a white flag on my car."

As soon as he approached the British soldiers, he said, he was arrested and marched more than two miles to a place for questioning. The British did not accept his explanation that he needed to maintain the water plant, and ordered him to return to the city, Haidary said. He later tried again, this time traveling with the Red Cross, and managed to get across the line.

He risked his life to keep the water running in wartime, only to see the problem become worse after the shelling ceased.

On patrol for problems yesterday, he found broken generators, idle pumps and pipes that were destroyed by explosions or spewing water geysers from bullet holes.

A badly damaged water tank had been shot by a British tank, according to Abud Abdul Hhassan, 53, the local water operator. One water pipe was destroyed when retreating Iraqi forces detonated mines on an adjacent bridge. At one plant, local residents were buying fuel to run generators.

Workers for the Basra Water Directorate, who are slowly returning to their jobs, must plug the thousands of holes made by water thieves. But the most difficult part is to persuade people not to break into the pipes.

In the Yusuf family, with eight people, it is the job of Majed, 14, and his brother Mahra, 13, to find water and cart it home. Their favorite location is a pipe under a manhole on Al Saday Street in central Basra, a block from where Al Haidary and Red Cross officials gather each day to discuss how to restore the city's water to full capacity.

The Yusuf boys aren't buying the explanation that if people stop taking the water, the system could be running properly in a few days.

"This is government water," Mahra said. "Nobody said don't do it. It's normal. Everyone takes it."

Robyn Dixon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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