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IRAQ: U.S. military makes fresh water for Baghdad

June 27, 2008 |  6:46 am

Fuel shortages and power outages may soon be joined by yet another problem in Iraq – water shortages.

Deteriorating water systems compounded by a nationwide drought are threatening service breakdowns in some Baghdad neighborhoods, raising the possibility of cholera epidemics.

The drought had already curtailed last year’s grain crops when the government ordered farmers to plant less. (See Thursday's story, "First violence, now drought threatens Iraq farmers.")

Although there’s not a crisis yet in Baghdad, the U.S. military is working with the Iraqi government on quick fixes to prevent one while the large systems are being rebuilt.

The U.S. military spent $3.5 million in Baghdad alone last year on the water problem, partly by trucking water into the neighborhoods.

This year the military is taking a new approach by setting up temporary water purification units at three locations in eastern Baghdad at a cost of about $500,000.

U.S. military experts are overseeing construction by Iraqi contractors and will operate the system, but this time the funding is all Iraqi.

“We need to capitalize on the improved security situation and get them [the Iraqis] to spend their money,” said Gen. James M. Milano, Deputy Commander of the 4th Infantry Division.

On a recent tour of the project, Milano saw Iraqis hard at work setting up pipe connections, storage and discharge tanks in order to prepare for distribution in the Fudheiliya neighborhood.

Milano acknowledges that it’s a short-term solution, but one he hopes will work until permanent water systems are restored, perhaps years from now.

At the heart of the system at each of the three sites is a reverse osmosis water purification unit about the size of an ocean shipping container. They are loaned by the U.S. military to the local municipal authorities. The system taps into underground pipes that carry raw water coming directly from the Tigris River, converting it into potable water.

The treated water is stored in tanks and then off-loaded into delivery trucks via an over-head spout. Pedestrians can also fill containers from a secondary storage tank adjacent to the spout.

Behind the project, which started in April, is Maj. Jeff Smith, 59, of the 4 BCT, 10th MTN Div.

Smith is passionate about the connection between the necessities of life and security.

“We need to fill in the gaps and reduce causes of instability, essentially by assisting the local government in supporting the higher government by way of providing the basic necessities of life to the local populace,” he said.

“There’s a definite positive reaction from the local people even though we’re still at the building stage, imagine what it will be like once distribution commences!” Smith said.

In an environment of pervasive corruption Smith must also pay attention to how fairly the water is distributed. He wants to be sure the neediest receive it.

One way Major Smith intends to appeal to the collective conscience is to have large Quranic verses painted at each site saying:

“And we have created from water everything alive…”

--Said Rifai in Baghdad