Iraq: the challenge of providing clean water and rebuilding infrastructure

25-06-2012 Operational Update

With the impact of Iraq's long years of war and insecurity still marring the future, older problems, such as water scarcity and weak infrastructure, are also harming prospects for development and stability. The ICRC is striving to improve the situation in the areas hardest hit.

The ICRC has been working in Iraq for the past 30 years, attending to the mounting humanitarian needs. During this period, the challenges relating to water and basic public infrastructure have taken various shapes. The fall in the water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which provide the bulk of Iraq's water supply, is not new. The ICRC has long been warning of the serious consequences of a dwindling water supply. But present-day Iraq faces challenges that are even more daunting.

"Access to clean water is not the only problem faced by Iraqis today, though it is one of the major ones. There are areas in Iraq where entire water systems are in need of repair," said Alexandre Farine, the ICRC delegate in charge of water and habitat activities in the country. "We are focusing on the areas that have been hardest hit, where such problems have posed the greatest challenges to the population. People's daily lives are affected by the scarcity of clean water, which in turn causes health and hygiene problems."

The ICRC carries out the partial or complete renovation of infrastructure in areas where no alternative support is available and the needs are acute. It also provides Iraqi technical staff with training so that they can maintain the facilities over the long term.

"I'm so happy to see the Red Cross in this area again," said a policeman on duty at a checkpoint in Missan governorate, when he saw the ICRC vehicle approaching. ICRC staff were on their way to work on a water pumping station. The policeman was reminded of the work carried out by the ICRC on the water supply system in his home village in 1998. At the time, Iraq was under international sanctions and people lacked even the most basic amenities of life.

In some rural areas, rapid population growth has resulted in successive extensions of the drinking water networks. This has not only reduced the water pressure but also caused a drastic drop in the quantity of water reaching people's taps. Thousands are left without ready access to clean water, which causes much further hardship. This is precisely what happened to the 12,000 inhabitants of the Sarajic area in Diyala, in central Iraq, where the ICRC installed a compact water purification unit in May to restore their supply of drinking water.

Like other public infrastructure, many health-care facilities in Iraq have suffered varying degrees of damage. This has resulted in a lack of capacity. The public health-care centre in Al Talea area of Babil governorate, for example – a facility built in 1947 – cannot provide enough medical services to meet the needs of the population of over 32,000 in the area. According to an ICRC assessment, the existing facility, which includes emergency rooms, a pharmacy, a maternity and paediatrics ward, a vaccination room, a female consultation room as well as the main waiting area, is structurally irreparable. At peak times it is overcrowded, and its structural condition is having an effect on the health-care services provided. The ICRC is therefore going to support the construction of a new building to improve the quality of services available. It is also repairing and renovating several other facilities elsewhere in Iraq.

The ICRC's overarching objective remains to provide clean water for victims of armed conflict, other violence and natural disasters and to improve health-care and irrigation facilities, which form the foundation for a brighter future.

Bringing aid and support to people facing hardship

In a number of places in Iraq, people continue to struggle to meet their families' basic needs. Between March and May, the ICRC:

  • supported the upgrade of more than 100 kilometres of irrigation schemes in Rabea and Qaratapa, in Dohuk and Diyala governorates respectively, which will help increase agricultural production and income for more than 1,500 families;
  • enrolled 437 needy community members in cash-for-work activities in connection with the irrigation works, enabling those taking part to temporarily increase their household income;
  • awarded 183 grants to disabled people and to women heading households in Kirkuk, Diyala, Ninewa, Suleymaniyah, Basra and Missan and Erbil, enabling them to start small businesses and regain economic self-sufficiency;
  • distributed essential hygiene and household items to over 17,300 displaced people in Salah Al-Din, Anbar, Sulaimaniyah, Kirkuk, Dohuq and Mosul; 527 of the beneficiaries also received basic food items for one month for their families;
  • provided aid for 1,092 women heading households in Baghdad and Anbar governorates, and helped them register with the State welfare allowance system.


Basra. ICRC staff train technicians who work at water treatment plants. 

Basra. ICRC staff train technicians who work at water treatment plants.
© ICRC / A. Abbas

Sulaimaniya. Internally displaced people receive assistance from the ICRC. 

Sulaimaniya. Internally displaced people receive assistance from the ICRC.
© ICRC / M. Pawlak / v-p-iq-e-01081

Makhmour. Laboratory personnel at work in an ICRC-supported primary health-care centre. 

Makhmour. Laboratory personnel at work in an ICRC-supported primary health-care centre.
© ICRC/Getty images / E. Ou / v-p-iq-e-01080

Najaf. ICRC personnel train staff and volunteers of the Iraqi Red Crescent in first aid. 

Najaf. ICRC personnel train staff and volunteers of the Iraqi Red Crescent in first aid.
© ICRC / v-p-iq-e-01082