Global Policy Forum

Health Ministry Issues Warning on Waterborne Diseases

Integrated Regional Information Networks
July 3, 2007

Iraqi Health Ministry officials warned on 3 July of a possible increase in waterborne diseases among children and the elderly during the summer's hottest month of July. Water and sewage networks have not been repaired and this could exacerbate the problem, which has been further highlighted by five cholera cases recently reported in southern Iraq, the officials said. "Many cases of viral hepatitis, diarrhoea, typhoid and bacterial infections have been registered in Baghdad due to polluted drinking water," Ahmed Assad Naji of Baghdad's health directorate said.

"Water is an enormous need, and people take it where they can get it, and they are getting it from places where it is not always clean. The deteriorated security situation has made it very hard to repair the country's sewage and water networks to work properly and that caused these waterborne diseases," Naji said. "The number of cases in Iraq is still small; none has been fatal and all of them are still under control. Nevertheless the cases could reach serious levels if immediate measures are not taken to repair sewage and water networks," he added. Naji said the most vulnerable persons for these diseases were children under five, women aged 19-45 and elderly people. Precise figures for the number of people, especially children, affected by waterborne diseases in Iraq are not available.

Cholera in Najaf

In late June, five cases of cholera were reported among children in the southern city of Najaf, about 200km south of Baghdad, said Nasser Mohammed Ali of the city's health directorate. "All of the cases were among children under 12," Ali added. Cholera, which is spread through bacteria in contaminated water, is easily treatable but can cause rapid dehydration and death if not treated. Cholera pandemics have killed tens of thousands of people worldwide, most recently in South America in the early 1990s. "The residents should boil the water very well and not allow garbage to be accumulated near their houses," he added.

Over four years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the majority of Iraqis find it difficult to get safe water, despite the fact that the country has two abundant natural water sources, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Like much of Iraq's infrastructure, its national water networks have fallen into disrepair over the past two decades, partly as a result of UN-imposed sanctions during Saddam's era.


Since 2003, Iraq's water problems have worsened. The country's main water treatment and pumping stations were stripped of vital equipment by looters immediately after the collapse of the former regime, according to officials from the UN Children's Agency (UNHCR). Later acts of sabotage damaged infrastructure even further. Municipal water became dirty and contaminated - exposing children to dangerous waterborne diseases, said the agency. In a statement marking World Water Day on 22 March, UNICEF in Iraq warned that the chronic shortage of safe drinking water could push up incidences of diarrhoea, a leading killer of children in the country.

UNICEF abandons water service

UNICEF launched a water tanker service in April 2003 to help the worst-affected families in Baghdad. According to the agency, tanker trucks full of safe drinking water were sent daily to the most deprived areas of the capital, Baghdad, and Basra in the south of the country. Last year, UNICEF said, its tankers reached about 120,000 people a day in Baghdad, delivering 400 million litres of safe water to 10 residential areas, five schools and six main hospitals - as well as to a growing number of displaced families in the capital. But lack of funds has forced UNICEF this year to halt its water service, the agency said. The government's efforts to repair water networks have been hampered by continuing violence in restive areas, ongoing electricity outages, attacks on infrastructure and engineering works and under-investment in the water sector.

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