Iraq’s Drinking Problem


Clean water is essential to any serious aid project in Iraq. Most of the country depends on pumped water from two rivers; Baghdad is dependent on the Tigris.

One in 10 children die in Iraq before the age of five, most because of diarrhea or malnutrition. Until very recently, less than half of Iraq’s water and sanitation works have been in operation. The Iraqi pumping system is electrically powered, said Nathaniel Raymond, a spokesperson for the relief group Oxfam America, so if the U.S. and British bomb power stations, the pumps are likely to be knocked out. If that happens, Raymond said, “sewage could flow into the streets, and there may be a wildfire spread of diseases such as cholera and dysentery.” Like other aid agencies, Oxfam complains that the Office of Foreign Assets Control won’t approve licenses to get into Iraq. “Many services don’t work because they need working pumps,” Paul Sherlock, Oxfam’s chief water engineer, reported from Baghdad last year. “Trucked systems aren’t working properly because there are no spares, no tires, and no batteries. Sewage flows back into people’s houses. People put the sewage in open storm drains or just into the street. There are pools of raw sewage in the cities. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a public health disaster.”

Richard Garfield, a professor of nursing at Columbia University who has been back and forth to Iraq during the past seven years, points out that children are dying in Iraq because of a complex of factors—bad nutrition, infections caused by unsanitary conditions, and second-rate medical care. The situation had begun to improve since the Oil for Food program began in 1998, and Iraqi officials have ordered generator machinery and parts. “By January this year,” Garfield said, “the pumping situation was considerably improved from the ’91-’97 period. Even if you’re not targeting water stations, if you’re bombing a lot, water pipes will get broken. . . . Supply and wastewater pipes are dug shallow, so even Iraqi tanks rolling over them will cause leakages.”

He said people had been feverishly installing shallow wells throughout Baghdad, so that if water stations or electricity are knocked out, some water will be available—brackish water, but useful for cleaning.

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John, Joanna Khenkine, and Mosi Secret