Baghdad , Jun 6 – With reconstruction of a highly inadequate water treatment and distribution system at a near standstill throughout much of Central Iraq, some residents of Baghdad are left with little choice but to drink highly polluted water from the Tigris River. Aside from a newly formed Iraqi non-governmental organization that is focusing on the cleanup of one section of the river, not much is being done to improve Baghdad residents’ access to potable water, and US contractors appear unable or unwilling to help.
While many areas of Baghdad have access to drinking water from a few of the functional treatment plants, millions of residents remain without a clean, reliable source. All too many of these unfortunates turn to the rotten banks of the Tigris, which snakes prominently through the heart of Baghdad collecting toxins as it flows.
Abdul Salam Abdulali works on the river, running a dredging machine. A river man for most of his life, he has long been employed by a company that dredges the muddy Tigris, but which was recently incorporated into the Ministry of Water Resources.
“I am married to the water,” he said standing atop his dredging machine as it floated atop the river. “But it is too polluted now. I wish I could eat the fish, but when I cut them open I can smell the oil.”
The residents of the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood called Sadr City are often forced to drink untreated water directly from the Tigris. They are also plagued by diarrhea; many reportedly suffer from recurring kidney stones.
Sadr City shopkeeper Ranzi Amher Aziz joined a chorus of voices protesting the lack of potable water in this Baghdad slum. “The situation here is worse now than before the war,” he said, echoing others’ complaints.
Many here say they cannot see any sign of the US making an effort to help. Aziz stood near a pool of raw sewage in the street. “There has been no work here by the Americans to give us clean water or fix the sewage problem,” he said.
Tigris River water is a concentrated cocktail of pesticides, fertilizers, oil, gasoline and heavy metals, reports Dr. Husni Mohammed, an Iraqi who holds a PhD in Environmental and Biological Science and has researched the condition of the Tigris. Raw sewage mixes with particles from antiquated piping and US-fired depleted uranium munitions, he says, plus remnants from untold amounts of other chemicals released by American and Iraqi weaponry used since the 1991 Gulf War.
In an alarming development, Dr. Mohammed’s research has additionally concluded that Iraqi and US military waste during the 2003 invasion deposited oil and benzene into the river.
The health effects of benzene — an ingredient found in gasoline and jet fuel — are well known and severe. Short-term exposure can cause significant damage to the nervous system and dramatic suppression of the immune system. Consistent consumption of benzene-tainted water can cause long-term effects including cancer (particularly Leukemia), birth defects and damage to the reproductive system.
Heavy metals in drinking water are also known to damage the liver, brain and other vital organs.
Adding to the hazards, very few sewage treatment plants in Baghdad are operational. Raw waste from the city of five million residents can be pumped through the sewer system, completely bypassing any treatment, and flow right into the river.
Statistics underscore the widespread suffering of Iraqis. The incidence of diarrheal diseases, such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera, doubled between August 2002, before the US-led invasion, and a year later. So reported the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a UN agency tasked with coordinating responses to severe humanitarian crises. Seventy percent of all children’s sicknesses are linked to contaminated water, the report adds.
Over one year into the occupation, the situation is not seen by most residents here as having improved much. Therefore, some have begun to take on the responsibility and work of enacting changes they do not believe can wait for foreign authorities or the new interim government to undertake.
Shwaqi Kareem, the president of the National Association for Defense of Environment and Children (NADEC), founded the non-governmental organization (NGO) because he felt it was time to start cleaning up a particularly polluted section of the Tigris. He hopes to remove the garbage, stop the deluge of raw sewage that is flowing into the river and establish gardens along the banks.
Kareem said the Tigris is in worse condition now than before the invasion, and blames the US’s disinterest in taking care of a waterway considered vital by Iraqis.
NADEC draws on the labor of around 1,000 workers, said co-founder Salim Kamel. Some are paid, but the majority are volunteers. “We get some money from the municipality,” Kamel said, “but some of the volunteers are business owners who donate money as well.”
Kareem is reluctant to work with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in the cleanup; he blames the Coalition for allowing companies to dump their garbage and sewage into the river over the past year.
A contractor interviewed inside the Coalition-run “Green Zone” area echoed Kareem’s sentiments. Awshalim Khammo recently quit his job in frustration after working to clean up the areas of the CPA near the Tigris. “I tried all last year to help improve the Palace ground and the river side within the Green Zone, but things went from bad to worse,” he said. Khammo complained in particular about dumping — which he referred to as a “disaster” — near the Kellogg Brown and Root warehouse and yards on the east end of the presidential palace.
Bechtel Corporation was awarded a no-bid, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract on April 17, 2003 worth $680 million. The controversial contract made Bechtel and its subcontractors responsible for the rehabilitation of the Sharkh Dijlah water treatment plant in Baghdad, as well as the Kerkh Waste Water Treatment Plant.
Repeated contacts with various authorities in charge of civilian press access to water treatment projects yielded no invitations to verify progress made on any Baghdad area water treatment facilities.
The brochure produced by Bechtel to highlight its work in Iraq concerning the drinking water situation only gives a concrete finishing date for two projects, one of which is the rehabilitation and capacity-building of the Sharkh Dijlah plant.
Work on the plant, Bechtel’s number two priority in Baghdad since June 2003, is expected to increase potable water by 225 million liters per day. The work was due to be completed by this month.
According to the Washington Post, however, Baghdad officials said Bechtel spent four months studying plans for the expansion made by Iraq’s state-run water company, finally concluding they were acceptable. They then reissued the same orders for the same parts from the same supplier Iraqi engineers had tried to acquire them from. Bechtel estimates it will spend $16 billion on the project, carrying out the work essentially as had previously been done by Iraqi engineers no longer permitted to participate.
Bechtel admits the water treatment plant is still being rehabilitated, but says the delay is caused by extra capacity. “We are expanding the treatment capacity of the plant by 50 percent over the design capacity, or 50 million gallons per day,” said company spokesperson Francis Canavan. “Our work is expected to be completed in the fall.”
Dr. Abdul Latif Rashid, the Minister for Water Resources in Iraq, told the BBC that the poor state of Iraq’s infrastructure and past mismanagement are to blame for some of the water problems Iraqis are now facing.
The UN’s OCHA report spread the blame more broadly: “Three wars and 13 years of sanctions, as well as the Coalition invasion and the looting that followed it, have dealt a heavy blow to the country’s already creaking water system.”
Kerkh Wastewater Treatment Plant — another Baghdad area plant in Bechtel’s Implementation Plan — is currently undergoing rehabilitation efforts, according to a company spokesperson, who said, “Last week, the Kerkh Wastewater Treatment Plant, which we are rehabilitating, began treating sewage for the first time in years, when one-third of the plant reopened.”
During a boat tour of the Tigris’ banks taken to inspect treatment facilities, NADEC founder Shwaqi Kareem pointed to a massive outpouring of brownish gray wastewater flowing right into the river. The source of this vile discharge? “The Kerkh Wastewater Treatment Plant,” said Kareem.