Global Policy Forum

Shortage of Safe Water in Missan Province Poses Health Risk

Integrated Regional Information Networks
October 9, 2007

A shortage of chemicals for water purification is adversely affecting water quality in Missan Province, a predominantly Shia region some 380km south of Baghdad, and posing a health risk as people resort to drawing water from the polluted River Tigris, according to aid agencies. The river, with its tributaries, is the main source of the province's water which is pumped through water treatment facilities to the main towns. Amarah, the provincial capital, has not had its mains water supply treated since early September for lack of chemicals.

The problem is compounded by the daily arrival in the province of displaced families. Thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from central and northern provinces have flocked to Missan since February 2006, which is considered to be relatively safe, and this is putting pressure on the limited water resources.

According to a November 2006 report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the available water supply meets only 60 percent of the needs of Amarah and the main towns. "Rural areas rely on drinking water directly from the marshes, water that is highly saline, untreated and often contaminated because of the lack of sanitation systems," the report said. According to a more recent survey by Missan's Water and Sanitation Directorate, only 5 percent of the houses in the province have running water, 60 percent use water pumps and the rest depend on rivers for their water supply.

Cholera fears

"Mains water [in Amarah] has not been purified since early September as the chemicals aren't available and the only truck carrying the material was stolen," said Ali Saeed, a spokesman for Missan's Water and Sanitation Directorate. "Families fear cholera will spread to their cities and towns. In Amarah cases of diarrhoea have increased by 30 percent compared to two months ago," he said. "There hasn't been a proper sanitation system in Missan since before the invasion in 2003 and many water points have been destroyed or broken, and need repairing. Many districts of Amarah have poor sanitation facilities and one can smell the stench of open sewers kilometres away," said Mayada Obeid, a spokesperson for South Peace Organisation (SPO), a non-governmental organisation (NGO). "In some areas of the province supposedly drinkable water is being mixed with sewage effluent and families have no option but to drink unsafe water," Obeid said. "Some residents are using water from the Tigris which was designated unsafe for drinking by the local health secretary after the discovery of harmful bacteria and parasites on river banks."

Amarah, a major trading centre renowned for his agricultural produce, wool and hides, is a communications hub linking Baghdad and Basra. The threat of the spread of communicable diseases is real. "Trade here is brisk and different people from other provinces move around. One of them might be contaminated and easily transfer diseases to other residents. We urgently need chemicals for water purification as most local people aren't wealthy enough to buy filters or use their cooking gas to purify [boil] their water," Hussein Lattef, an epidemiologist at Amarah heath directorate, said.

IDPs at risk

"Over 40,000 individuals are taking refuge in our province and only 15 percent of them are being supplied with purified water by aid agencies… If one person drinking unsafe water gets sick, he could easily transmit diseases to others," Lattef said. "We bring water every day to my mum for cooking and washing our clothes and dishes. The river is 3km from our tent and the police told us that we have to boil water to drink, but my mother said it was too expensive, so we are bringing it from the river which is natural and safe," said eight-year-old Rabab Muhammad, an IDP at Rahman camp on the outskirts of Missan governorate.

According to Missan's Statistics Directorate, the population of the province was estimated at nearly 790,000 in 2006, with at least 25 percent living in serious poverty. A joint report released on 30 July by the UK-based charity Oxfam and the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq said about eight million Iraqis were in urgent need of water and sanitation. The report said 70 percent of Iraqis do not have adequate water supplies - up from 50 percent in 2003.

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