Baghdad's water still undrinkable 6 years after invasion

03/18/2009 1:38 PM

04/09/2009 9:48 AM

BAGHDAD — The stench of human waste is enough to tell Falah abu Hasan that his drinking water is bad. His infant daughter Fatma's continuous illnesses and his own constant nausea confirm it.

"We are the poor. No one cares if we get sick and die," he said. "But someone should do something about the water. It is dirty. It brings disease."

Everybody complains about the water in Baghdad, and few are willing to risk drinking it from the tap. Six years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, 36 percent of Baghdad's drinking water is unsafe, according to the Iraqi Environment Ministry — in a good month. In a bad month, it's 90 percent. Cholera broke out last summer, and officials fear another outbreak this year.

"Even if the water is good today, no one would trust it," grocer Hussein Jawad said. He said that about 40 percent of his business was selling bottled drinking water, crates of which he's stacked 7 feet high on the sidewalk. "We've learned to be afraid."

The irony of bad water is lost on few here. When the city was founded 1,200 years ago, it was named Baghdad al Zawhaa, "Baghdad the Garden," because water was plentiful. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers formed the boundaries of Mesopotamia and fed the fields in the cradle of civilization.

Baghdad still draws its water from the Tigris, but even that legendary source is problematic. President Jalal Talabani flew to Turkey this week to discuss the diminishing water flow, because Turkey has dammed the river. Syria and Iran have dammed its tributaries.

Environment Minister Nirmeen Uthman said Iraqi waste-treatment systems were obsolete, and that the concentration of waste being poured into the Tigris had increased. It's simple math: less river water, more concentrated waste. Each year the river is dirtier.

"Our most recent studies show the color is wrong, the smell is wrong, the pressure is wrong," she said. "And that was a good month, a very good month."

The list of reasons for the unclean water sounds like the recent history of this war-ravaged country. The saying goes: "Iraq was busy with the sword and the flag."

Baghdad's water network was due to be upgraded in 1984, but Saddam Hussein went to war with Iran instead. Then he invaded Kuwait. The U.S. bombing campaign that forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait damaged the water system and cut the resources needed to fix it.

A decade of international economic sanctions impoverished Iraq, and the water got worse. The U.S.-led invasion six years ago led to wide looting of offices and the abandonment of purification systems.

During the sectarian and terrorist strife that followed, it was impossible to start improvements or repairs, much less complete them. Baghdad had to hire security personnel even for water projects. The U.S. military's troop buildup starting in late 2007 also took its toll: One water pipeline was delayed for nine months because the U.S. built a blast wall across its path.

Since 2003, 500 city engineers have been killed, suspending hundreds of project plans, according to Hakeem Abdulzahra, Baghdad's chief spokesman. Finding personnel to replace the dead also is never easy, he said.

During the war, displaced people flooded the capital, constructed shoddy new homes or camped out in abandoned government offices. They dug down and tapped city pipes, often using pumps to find water supplies. As a result, 6 million people use Baghdad water daily, but only 5 million of them use it legally.

"These people make quality control very difficult," Abdulzahra said.

Take Falah abu Hasan, who's among 625 families squatting in the old air force offices in central Baghdad, one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of illegal settlements around the city.

In the absence of adequate sewers, squatters run pipes from their bathrooms into the street, turning it into a standing cesspool. The water lines are poorly sealed, and as the pressure goes down, raw sewage mixes with drinking water, not only for the squatters but also for anyone who relies on that water main.

Looking at a block-long pool of dirty, trash-filled water, Hasan said that when pumps were in use to obtain city water, he'd seen the pools of sewage drop.

Ihsan Jaafar, Iraq's director of public health, said the water had been bad for years but that it now carried cholera, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis and other diseases.

"Clean water would be one of the biggest improvements in quality of life in Iraq," he said. "The people of the Mujamaa (illegal settlements) are the most vulnerable in our society. We must protect them, but they cannot live this way."

The city has a 10-year, $6 billion plan to fix the problem, which involves shutting down the squatters' settlements. However, there's fear that shutting down the settlements would force families onto the street and reignite sectarian fighting; the settlements are a recruiting ground for Shiite Muslim militias.

So step one in the repairs for the city water department is putting together a security force.

"We fight, as if we were in the army, to bring people clean water and take away sewage," Abdulzahra said.

Imam Mahnood al Bayati, a clergyman and a former engineer who's worked on water systems, said that providing clean drinking water was a central goal for Baghdad, for Iraq and even for Islamic religious practice.

"We can't even pray without water," he said in an interview at the Hajia Sidaa Mosque. "Before we pray, we must clean ourselves . . . ," he said, chuckling, wondering whether it's even possible to perform an ablution with Baghdad water these days. "Well, the Quran allows us, if there is no water to clean with, to use the sand of the desert. There's still plenty of that."

(Schofield reports for The Kansas City Star.)

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