Lack of sanitation and polluted water supplies are reaching crisis levels in Iraq, causing illness in children and increased hardship, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Years of conflict and under-investment have undermined Iraq’s vital social services to the point where many basic family needs are going unmet. Water and sanitation networks have been particularly affected by damage to local infrastructure, poor maintenance and a lack of skilled staff.
Currently, only 17 per cent of Iraq’s sewage is treated before being discharged into the country’s rivers and waterways. Untreated wastewater from Baghdad alone is enough to fill 370 Olympic swimming pools every single day. Pools of sewage are also a common sight across north and south Iraq, increasing health hazards in communities.
“Lack of hygiene and unsafe drinking water are priority concerns for Iraqi families,” said Roger Wright, UNICEF Special Representative for Iraq. Far too many are stretching scarce household resources to find safe drinking water – which should be readily available to all.” He said that young children are suffering particularly. Waterborne diseases and related malnutrition are keeping many out of school and undermining their healthy growth.
A UNICEF 2006 survey, measuring reliability of water supplies, indicated widespread infrastructure problems. Despite 79 per cent of Iraqis reporting connection to a water source, only 40 per cent said the source was working reliably.
Dr. Naeema Al-Ghasser, WHO Representative for Iraq, said that the situation could worsen with the approach of summer, as heat increases pressure on water and sanitation networks. She also warned of a possible resurgence of cholera, which sickened over 4,700 Iraqis during an outbreak in late 2007.
“Poor sanitation in Iraq is a dangerous conduit for disease” she said. “We can mitigate some of the risks cleaning communal water sources over the next few months and passing information to families on good hygiene practices for the home. But this is no substitute for greater investment in water and sanitation networks in the long-term.”
This year, UNICEF plans to build on ongoing efforts to improve services for vulnerable families, thanks to the support of partners such as the European Commission. Through its emergency and development operations, UNICEF will tanker over 300 million litres of safe drinking water to communities without access, distribute water and hygiene kits to up to 120,000 families in crisis and work with government and other Agencies to rehabilitate water and sanitation networks in nine governorates reaching 1.8 million people.
WHO will continue to build government capacity to monitor water quality in Iraq, as well as promoting hygiene education, particularly for women and school children, on the dangers of sanitation-related diseases and their impact on health and the economy.
UNICEF and WHO called for a renewed drive during 2008, which is the International Year of Sanitation, to put much-needed resources in this critical sector,. The International Year of Sanitation focuses global attention on the challenge of meeting Millennium Development Goal 7, which calls for governments to halve the proportion of people living without access to safe water and basic sanitation – a goal Iraq is not close to meeting. Sanitation is also the focus of this year’s World Water Day, upcoming on 22 March. They stressed that water and sanitation services for Iraqi families can be improved even amid insecurity, yielding results that are lasting and visible to all.