September 8, 2008, Baghdad – Just months after Americans repaired a sewage treatment plant in southern Baghdad, insurgents attacked the facility and killed the manager. Looters took care of the rest.
Nearly three years later, the plant remains an abandoned shell. Raw sewage is still flowing freely through giant pipes into the Tigris River, ending up in some of the capital’s drinking water. And those pipes are hardly the only source of contamination.
Many residents only have to sniff the tap water to know something is not right.
“I fear giving it to my children directly unless I boil it,” said Enam Mohammed Ali, a 36-year-old mother of four in the New Baghdad district in the eastern part of the city.
The water crisis began as a symptom of the problems that plagued reconstruction efforts in the early years of the war. Extremists attacked infrastructure projects, including electricity stations and sewage plants, to undermine support for the U.S. and its Iraqi allies. Law and order broke down, with looters stealing pipes, power lines and other equipment.
But now, the recent decline in violence is raising hopes that the government can focus on repairing critical public services crippled by war and neglect. Perhaps the most complex: trying to control what goes into waterways and what comes out of Baghdad taps.
Two-thirds of the raw sewage produced in the capital flows untreated into rivers and waterways, Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said in his quarterly report released Wednesday.
U.S. and Iraqi officials insist that the tap water in most of Baghdad is of at least fairly good quality because it comes from less polluted areas north of the city. In fact, more Iraqis nationwide have access to potable water now than before the war – 20 million people compared with 12.9 million previously, according to Bowen’s report.
But some neighborhoods, notably New Baghdad and Baladiyat, are not so lucky.
There, the Tigris is so filthy with sewage and other pollutants that the local treatment facility can only do so much. To make matters worse, sewage then leaks into the potable water pipes. On Friday, the U.S. military announced the opening of a water distribution site to prevent the mixing of sewage and drinking water in New Baghdad and Baladiyat.
It comes none too soon.
A cholera outbreak in northern Iraq last year killed 14 people. A similar outbreak of the waterborne disease in Baghdad – home to about 6 million people – could be far worse.
“Iraq is on the cusp of a serious water crisis that requires immediate attention and resources,” said Thomas Naff, a Middle East water expert at the University of Pennsylvania.
The World Bank has estimated that it would take $14.4 billion to rebuild the Iraqi public works and water system.
A U.S. Embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media, said the actual need is higher. The United States has allocated $2.7 billion for water projects in Iraq, but the official said the money is running out.
Iraq has been slow in spending its billions in oil revenues on public works projects – despite insistence from U.S. military commanders who recommend quality-of-life improvements to undercut militants and win over Sunni districts wary of the Shiite-led government.
“Up to now we have seen nothing from the government,” Sheik Ayad Abdul-Jabbar al-Jubouri complained to a top American commander during a July 12 meeting at a combat outpost in Radwaniyah, a Sunni community just west of the capital. He said the central government is sitting on U.S.-led projects to repair four small water treatment plants and improve two irrigation canals in Radwaniyah.
“We’ll fix it,” Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond assured the sheik.
Mustafa Hamid, a spokesman for the Iraqi environment ministry, said the water pipe network is more than 50 years old and suffers from corrosion “which allows sewage water to infiltrate.”
But Hamid downplayed the risk. “There is contamination but not a serious one,” he said, saying test results in most parts of the city generally met “safe standards.”
Many residents are unconvinced.
Hassan Khalid, 13, said he took antibiotics for typhoid four months ago after drinking tap water. “I had fever, headaches and was throwing up all the time,” he said.
Although bottled of water is sold in Iraq – much of it from Saudi Arabia – the majority of Baghdad residents use tap water. U.S. troops, however, are warned that the water is only for bathing, not drinking.
The U.S. Embassy official said she has seen black sewage water gushing into the Tigris from a giant pipeline during an aerial tour.
Farmers in Baghdad’s northern districts of Azamiyah and Istiqlal, just a few miles from the Tigris, are forced to use sewage water to irrigate crops, the U.S. military said.
The Tigris, which cuts through the heart of the capital and provides most of its drinking water, runs brownish green in the summer. But it still attracts bathers seeking to escape the scorching heat.
“The water smells like dead fish,” Giya Nouri, a 40-year-old construction worker, said as he swam with his two young sons. “When I was a kid, it was blue and clean.”
But Nouri shrugged his shoulders when asked about the potential health risks. “We got used to it,” he said.
So far there has been no outbreak of waterborne diseases in Baghdad.
Last year in Iraq, the World Health Organization confirmed more than 3,300 cases of cholera, a gastrointestinal disease typically spread by contaminated water, and at least 14 deaths from the acute and rapid dehydration it causes. The hardest hit areas were in northern Iraq.
Dr. Nagesh Kumar, a water expert in India, said Iraq’s current drought “will make the water contamination situation worse” by drying up wells and lowering river levels.
In the capital, the Tigris is at its lowest level since 2001. Yards of reeds stick up from the water on each bank.