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IRAQ: Lots of rivers, not enough water

September 7, 2008 |  1:48 pm

Summer in Iraq brings unbearable heat, increased need for water, and death and illness suffered by people depending on contaminated water in a country blessed with rivers but unable to properly treat what comes out of them.

All you have to do is turn on a tap and watch the brown-tinted liquid pour out to see the problem.

The latest grim update comes from Hillah, the capital of Babil province south of Baghdad, where health officials have begun using loudspeakers to urge people not to eat ice cream or juice from vendors because it might be made with dirty water. Dr. Ahmed Ajrash, the deputy director of Babil's health directorate, said today that two people had died of confirmed cases of cholera in Babil.Digging1

There are 10 suspicious cases, not yet confirmed as the water-borne disease. In Hashimiya, about 18 miles south of Hillah, medical officials say they have seen 250 cases of severe watery diarrhea, some of which may turn out to be cholera. Dozens more suspected cholera cases have turned up in other parts of the country.

The problem raises the question: How can a country with two major rivers -- the Tigris and the Euphrates -- not have sufficient clean water for its people? The problem stems from Iraq's aging water treatment facilities, which were damaged or destroyed during the war and have yet to be replaced or repaired.

The United States has blamed much of the problem on security concerns. Violence has made it difficult for workers to complete many water projects, and those that have been finished fall victim to sabotage, they say.

Iraqi officials say much of the problem lies with the U.S. government and military, and with international aid organizations. They say the water treatment plants, pumping stations or other facilities intended to provide potable water are being handed over to Iraqi management who do not have adequate training to ensure the projects keep working.

A U.S. oversight agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction, says after projects are completed, there is no guarantee they'll be up to standards. The problems range from shoddy workmanship of some projects to mishandling of others once they are handed off to Iraqis to manage. An April report by the agency surveyed 17 projects across Iraq and said 13 had deficiencies, ranging from minor workmanship details to major construction faults.

Digging2 Babil Gov. Salem Meslemawi said more than 30 projects in his province were not operating as needed to pump water from the river, treat it and get it to the people.

The U.S. military says it is aware of the problems. In June, U.S. forces began setting up temporary water purification units at three military posts in Baghdad's Sadr City, a mainly poor, densely populated district. Many Iraqis, though, have taken matters into their own hands by simply gouging holes into the ground and drawing water illegally from pipes into their homes and offices.

--Times correspondents

Photos: Two men dig a personal well outside their Baghdad business. Credit: Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles Times.

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