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Water, even more precious than oil

23-05-2003

“Thirsty? Plenty of water in the tap!” True enough … in most of the places aid comes from. But not in a country that has just gone through a war. Isabelle Bourgeois pays tribute to a team of specialists in Basra.

   

When we turn on a tap in France, Switzerland or the USA, we know that clean, safe drinking water will come out. In Basra, things are not that simple. If there is running water, it is thanks to a dozen different trades and fifty dedicated men. It takes a special kind of person to be a “water worker” in a highly-volatile post-conflict environment. In time of war, repairing a water pipe or maintaining a pumping station can become an act of heroism. Serial looting, threats, sabotage and unexploded munitions are all part of daily life.

“Yesterday, we were repairing a water main damaged by shelling during the battle for Basra. I was amazed to see one of my workmen trying to pull an enormous shell out of the ground. We immediately stopped work and told the British forces, who have promised to eliminate the hazard,” reports Giorgio Nembrini, the ICRC coordinator for water activities in southern Iraq.

 
 
"Our staff are frightened," says the director of Reservoir Zero... 
 

Looting is another hazard. “People are forever stealing spare parts and supplies for our sewage treatment plant, and we have no means of defending ourselves. For the time being, the ICRC is helping us replace what gets stolen, but for how long? Our staff are frightened,” complains Jabbar al Haidary, director of Reservoir Zero, Basra’s main water treatment plant.

“We are making regular approaches to the Occupying Power to persuade them to comply with the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Hague Conventions by ensuring a minimum level of security and guarding sites that fulfil a vital role, such as key water-distribution facilities,” explains ICRC delegate Corrado Generelli.

Another problem is the widespread practice of boring holes in the pipes to obtain water. The danger of this is that sewage can leak into the water supply, bringing the risk of epidemics such as cholera. Working with local engineers and workmen, the ICRC is repairing the leaks – an essential task.

When not engaged on this dangerous, repetitive work, the ICRC is supplying the city’s five major hospitals with water every day.

One last job, as essential as the others; ICRC engineers have commissioned Iraqi chemists to check chlorination levels at various points in the Basra water system, to check that people are receiving disinfected water.

In Basra, there’s nothing automatic about getting water out of a tap … it’s the result of exemplary cooperation between the ICRC and those Iraqi staff who have been working in the water facilities since the conflict started, despite all the risks and diff iculties. We salute them.