Iraq: water formerly a blessing, increasingly a problem

14-05-2010 Operational Update

Millions of people in Iraq cannot get clean water or water in sufficient quantity. The ICRC is doing its best to improve access to safe water. This is an update on ICRC activities carried out in Iraq in March and April.

©ICRC/F. Mohammad. Ali  
Aqra district, Dohuk Governorate 

©ICRC/O. Saad 
Baghdad. Wethba pumping station 

ICRC trucking water to Al Rashad Psychiatric hospital in Baghdad 

©ICRC/M. Maan Salih 
Kanan sub-district of Baquba, Diyala governorate. ICRC distribution of relief items to women heading families. 

©ICRC/ S. M.Ali  
Permanent medical training centre, Sulaimaniya City. Presentation on the protection afforded by international humanitarian law to medical personnel during a three-week ICRC course delivered to 34 medical personnel. 

The Tigris and the Euphrates, which supply the bulk of Iraq's water, are slowly dwindling and in some areas can no longer be used as a reliable source of drinking water. Across the country, the shrinking of the rivers is having serious consequences on the functioning of water treatment plants. It also affects underground aquifers, where the salt content of the water is increasing. This water is often unfit for human consumption or even for agricultural use.

The volatile security situation in some areas and the rising price of fuel have put additional strain on already scarce services, as have population growth and displacement. In many places, the strain is further compounded by a lack of qualified engineers and staff able to maintain and repair water and sanitation facilities. Many farming communities were hard hit by the drought that struck northern Iraq in 2008. Average rainfall over the past 10 years has been far lower than in previous decades. In the north, water supply systems fed by springs and shallows aquifers have been depleted and often have less water available to meet demand. Although rainfall has been better in many places during 2009 and 2010, low water-levels continue to affect agriculture production, meaning Iraq needs to import more rice and wheat. With less water of sufficient quality generally available, management of the existing resources is key.

Because large suburban residential areas have sometimes developed without adequate infrastructure, and certain sewage treatment plants are bypassed, wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers and lakes. Ditches and ponds filled with foul-smelling polluted water blight many neighbourhoods. The United Nations recentl y estimated that around 83% of sewage is being let into rivers and waterways.

Water treatment and distribution facilities are also disrupted by persistent power shortages. Iraq is currently producing around 6,000 megawatts of electricity a day, while demand is estimated at 10,000 megawatts. Health, water and sewage facilities and other infrastructure in many parts of the country still rely on back-up generators to meet their need for electric power.

Water distribution systems that are old or badly maintained are further weakened by illegal connections and substandard plumbing within households. Leakages cause large amounts of wasted water and frequent contamination. According to the United Nations, nearly half of Iraqis in rural areas are without safe drinking water. The Iraqi government estimates that 24% of Iraqis in the country as a whole, or nearly one in four, do not have access to safe water.

" Reliable access to enough water of sufficient quality remains a major challenge for large parts of the population " , said Julien Le Sourd, the ICRC's water and habitat coordinator in Iraq. " The ICRC is doing its utmost to improve this by repairing and upgrading water supply and sewage systems. We do this in partnership with the authorities and we are also providing training for maintenance staff working in water treatment plants. "

In March and April, ICRC water engineers:

  • completed work at the Ashty water station, in Erbil governorate, which provides safe drinking water for around 10,000 people living in nearby villages;

  • built an emergency unit in the 50-bed Qala't Salih Hospital in Missan governorate;

  • upgraded the storage capacity for drinking water and for water used in the cooling system in Medical City Hospital, Baghdad. The hospital c an accommodate 1,400 patients and treats around 10,000 outpatients per day;

  • renovated a primary health-care centre serving around 400 patients in Sadr City, Baghdad;

  • connected the school of al Rahma camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Najaf City, which has 1,000 pupils and teachers, to the municipal water and electricity supply networks;

  • supplied and installed a new mortuary refrigerator with a capacity of 12 corpses in Beiji General Hospital, in Salah Al Din governorate;

  • delivered water by truck to 4,500 displaced people in Sadr City and to 340 in Husseinia and Ma'amil, Al Imam Ali General Hospital and Fatma al Zahra Hospital, all in Baghdad governorate, and to 360 in Qalawa Quarter camp in Sulaimaniya;

  • installed equipment used to fill water bags for distribution during emergencies at Al Wathba water treatment plant in Baghdad;

  • repaired the Hindiyah water treatment plant in Karbala, which supplies water to around 125,000 people;

  • installed a large-capacity pump in al Fadhliya water treatment plant, Thi Qar governorate, providing drinking water for 82,000 people.

  • assessed, in cooperation with Iraqi Correctional Services engineers, 11 detention facilities under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, evaluating needs and recommending improvements for the delivery of essential services (water, electricity, sewage).

 Bringing aid to vulnerable people  

The ICRC maintained its support for people facing special difficulty earning a living and supporting their families, such as women heading households, people with disabilities and displaced people:

  • more than 2,300 displaced families headed by women in Diyala, Salah Al-Din and Ninawa governorates were given monthly food parcels and hygiene items;

  • around 2 ,100 people displaced in March from Mosul to Hamdanya and Tilkaif were given food parcels and rice;

  • 61 disabled people in Erbil, Dohuk and Ninawa governorates were given micro-economic aid enabling them to start small businesses and regain economic self-sufficiency. A total of 459 disabled people have now received such aid in a programme that started in 2008.

 Assisting hospitals and physical rehabilitation centres  

Iraqi health facilities still benefit from ICRC support. To help disabled people reintegrate into the community, the ICRC provides limb-fitting and physical rehabilitation services. In March and April:

  • six hospitals and three primary health-care centres received medical supplies and equipment;

  • 25 doctors and 28 nurses successfully took part in a training course on strengthening emergency services given at Al Sadr Teaching Hospital in Najaf and at Sulaimaniya Emergency Hospital;

  • two people from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research involved in the teaching of prosthetics and orthotics went to the National Centre for Prosthetics and Orthotics in the United Kingdom under ICRC sponsorship for advanced training.

 Visiting detainees  

ICRC delegates continued to visit detainees in order to monitor the conditions in which they are being held and the treatment they receive. In all cases, the ICRC shares its findings and recommendations in confidence with the detaining authorities. In March and April, the ICRC visited detainees held:

  • in Counter-Terrorism Directorate and Tasfirat Najaf, in Najaf governorate;

  • in Mina and Samawa prisons, Basra governorate;

  • in Counter-Terrorism Directorate, Kirkuk governorate;

  • in US custody, in Remembrance II, Baghdad governorate;

  • in four prisons and one police station in Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya governorates.

Around 1,550 detainees held in Hilla I & II Correctional Facilities were given mattresses and recreational items such as ping-pong tables, soccer balls and volleyballs.

The ICRC makes a special effort to restore and maintain ties between detainees and their families. In March, it arranged for six Iraqi families to enter Kuwait and visit their relatives detained there since 1991. In addition, around 10,500 Red Cross messages were exchanged between detainees and their families in Iraq and abroad during the month of March.

During March and April, the ICRC responded to more than 3,600 enquiries from families seeking information on detained relatives. It also issued 220 certificates to former detainees making them eligible to receive social welfare benefits.

At the request of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the ICRC issued 73 travel documents for Palestinian refugees in Iraq to enable them to resettle abroad.

 Clarifying what happened to missing people  

The ICRC supports the authorities in their efforts to clarify what happened to those who went missing in connection with the Iran-Iraq War and the 1990-1991 Gulf War. It also helps train forensic professionals in the identification and management of mortal remains and regularly supplies equipment. In the past two months:

  • the Technical Sub-Committee of the Tripartite Commission, handling cases of persons missing in connection with the 1990-1991 Gulf War, held its 64th session in Kuwait, which was chaired by the ICRC and attended by representatives from Iraq, Kuwait and the 1990-1991 Coalition (t he United States, the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia). Nine samples of human remains were handed over by the Iraqi to the Kuwaiti delegation for DNA analysis in an effort to determine if they belonged to missing Kuwaiti nationals. The sub-committee will hold a special meeting on forensics in Kuwait in May;

  • mortal remains of Iraqi soldiers were repatriated from Kuwait under ICRC auspices.

 Promoting international humanitarian law  

In line with its mandate, the ICRC promotes compliance with international humanitarian law and reminds parties to a conflict of their obligation to protect civilians. In March and April, the ICRC organized a series of seminars and presentations on international humanitarian law for various audiences all over Iraq.