May 8, 2008 / 12:09 AM / in 10 years

Iraq, U.S. move to avert Baghdad water shortage

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Baghdad’s crumbling roads, burst sewage pipes and chronic water shortages are casualties of war that get little attention amid the daily litany of gunfights, bombs and bloodletting in Iraq.

<p>A U.S. soldier looks through the scope of his weapon as he stands guard at the site of the U.S. military proposed water plant project in New Baghdad district April 30, 2008. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani</p>

As summer approaches, the city is facing an acute shortage of drinking water despite the efforts of officials like Sadiq Shumari, its director of water services.

Temperatures are set to reach 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and demand for the precious commodity will outstrip supply.

“We have a huge task to rehabilitate the water system, which has been neglected for decades, but it’s a challenge with such poor security,” Shumari told Reuters on a trip to the eastern neighborhood of New Baghdad, one of the city’s poorest.

“Insecurity is a problem, but what doesn’t get as noticed is how it hinders the provision of services which the people need to live,” he said, before two loud blasts nearby sent him and some U.S. troops running for cover inside a building.

Lying far to the east of the Tigris River as it snakes through Baghdad’s more upmarket districts, the dusty, overcrowded streets of New Baghdad are visibly poor.

Children in torn clothes play in the dirt, next to festering piles of trash and opaque puddles of stagnant water.

A man wearing a traditional long, white robe sits on a brick outside his house listening to an old battery-powered radio.

Next to him, a child attempts to negotiate a path between a ditch full of foul-smelling rainwater and a manmade mountain of polythene bags, Coke cans, plastic bottles and cigarette packets.

Even the services in Sadr City, a notoriously deprived slum to the north of New Baghdad and home to 2 million people -- where U.S. and Iraqi forces are battling Shi‘ite militiamen loyal to populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- are more reliable than here.

SCARCE WATER

For the relatively well-off, scarce drinking water means forking out precious cash on expensive bottled water.

“We’re afraid of the tap water because of the germs,” said Um-Sara, a 54-year-old housewife, walking out of a shop balancing a 5-gallon (23-litre) water bottle on her shoulder.

Poorer residents, like Sami Mahmoud, use water pumps to draw ground water into storage tanks -- when power permits. But the water isn’t safe. Cholera epidemics have flared up in the past from people drilling their own wells into unclean reserves.

It all makes plenty of work for plumbers like Hussein Jawad.

“My business is up in summer,” he said. “There isn’t enough water, so I install pumps and tanks. We’re making good money.”

Baghdad authorities say they are working hard to build big water treatment plants with sufficient capacity to slake the thirst of the whole city. But these will not come online until late 2009.

U.S. officials have offered help with a short-term fix.

A project overseen by U.S. Brigadier-General Mike Milano will install purification facilities in a joint U.S. and Iraqi security station, then pipe the water into containers to be distributed to neighborhoods by truck.

“There’s going to be a potable water problem this summer in Baghdad. Programmes ongoing to correct that shortage are not going to be finished in time,” Milano told Reuters at the site.

“We’re looking at how we can provide capability. This is a bridge between where they are now and where they’ll be.”

Iraq’s services -- its water, sanitation and electricity -- have been in a dismal state since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Years of war, sabotage and neglect have crippled infrastructure and hobbled reconstruction efforts.

Corruption is endemic and has swallowed up billions of dollars of aid money before it reaches its intended projects.

American support for Iraqi reconstruction has become increasingly controversial at home. Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a law prohibiting the Pentagon from funding programmes costing more than $2 million.

Many U.S. legislators want the deficit-laden United States to scale back its aid to an Iraqi government running a healthy budget surplus on the back of record high oil prices.

But Milano thinks the United States has a duty to help Iraq rebuild. “Our principle mission is protecting the population. Providing services is protecting the population -- ensuring they have sufficient water, electricity, sewage, health clinics.”

Additional reporting by Wisam Mohammed; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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