Friday, April 20, 2007

Higher Incidence of Infection and Disease in Iraq Attributable to Water Shortage, Contamination, and Medical Waste

Sources: Insecurity and Lack of Funds Prevent Cleansing of Polluted Sites; Medical Waste a Growing Health Hazard; Doctors Warn of Summer Dehydration among Children and the Elderly; Children Suffer Bad Water Diseases

Severe water shortages are leading Iraqis to use contaminated river water for all of their needs. Like its sewage and electrical infrastructure, Iraq’s water networks fell into disrepair under draconian economic sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1990 until 2003. Following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, looters stripped equipment from water treatment and pumping stations. Now into the fourth year of war, the remaining water networks and sewage systems have been destroyed and municipal water full of contaminants has exposed Iraqis—young children in particular—to waterborne diseases.

Soon after the U.S.-led invasion, UNICEF tanker trucks were deployed to the most devastated areas of Baghdad and Basra to bring safe drinking water. In 2006, UNICEF delivered 400 million litres of potable water to families, schools, and hospitals. Last month, however, the water service came to a sudden halt due to lack of funding. UNICEF representatives explain that water tankers are generally used as only a short-term solution in the aftermath of an emergency. Nothing can be done to reverse the water shortage because continuing violence, ongoing electrical outages, attacks on engineering works, and lack of investment in the water sector all hamper efforts to repair water infrastructure. As the hot summer months begin in Iraq, doctors warn of higher rates of diarrhea, dehydration, cholera, and bacterial infections.

Without access to potable water, more families are turning to contaminated river water. Back in February, one month before UNICEF tanker trucks stopped supplying water, NGOs Coordination Committee in Iraq reported that 60% of the population in the areas surrounding Anbar and Bagdhad used river water for domestic use, 32% of the nation’s population had access to drinking water, and 19% had access to a good sewage system. With electrical shortages in most key areas of Iraq, dirty water cannot be pumped out of rivers, lakes, and other water systems, nor can it be treated. In Bagdhad’s Sadr City, doctors report that gastro-enteritis, brucellosis, hepatitis, and typhoid fever are common among children in the area due to bad drinking water. Ordinary citizens, living with violence, displacement, and poverty, are pushed closer to desperation by the lack of potable water. Young children, many of whom are malnourished, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to diarrhea, dehydration, and skin disorders caused by low water consumption. No official figures are available on the number of deaths caused by dehydration among children and the elderly.

In addition to dirty water, up to 400 polluted sites in Iraq threaten the health of the population. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has helped clan two dangerous sites on the outskirts of Baghdad: al-Qadissiya metal plating facility and al-Suwaira pesticides warehouse. Many dangerously exposed sites in need of clean up are dangerously close to fighting, and those involved in identifying and cleaning them have been targeted by armed groups. Garbage collectors have also been targeted because of their religious sect; fifteen have been killed in recent months while collecting garbage in Baghdad. The combination of inadequate funding and increased insecurity has led to ever dwindling garbage pick-up.

Hospitals, forced to operate on small electric generators, lack fuel for burning their waste. But with the breakdown in refuse disposal, bio-hazardous waste lays around for weeks. Children scavenge through the garbage in search of items, like used syringes, to sell on the market so that they may eat. Dozens of children have ended up in emergency rooms with symptoms of infectious diseases contracted from sewers, waste dumps, and hospital waste. Exposed petrochemicals sites and sulfur mines are other sources of pollution and health concerns, as is radiation in areas where nuclear research had been conducted in the past.

The long-term health consequences aren’t fully understood. But, according to specialists, the number of cancer cases has radically increased over the past five years. One oncologist at the Cancer Radiation Hospital in Baghdad says that his hospital went from treating 4000 patients per year to 9000. The Ministry of Health reports that 52% of all Iraqi cancer patients are children under the age of 5.

For Discussion: Should foreign and international environmental organizations organize toxic clean-ups in the middle of a war? Given the instability of the new government and the ongoing fighting, what are possible “solutions” for bringing potable water to civilians?

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