WORLD> Middle East
Filthy Iraqi drinking water raises cholera fears
Updated: 2008-08-02 16:58

BAGHDAD - Just months after Americans repaired a sewage treatment plant in southern Baghdad, insurgents attacked the facility and killed the manager. Looters took care of the rest.

Nearly three years later, the plant remains an abandoned shell. Raw sewage is still flowing freely through giant pipes into the Tigris River, ending up in some of the capital's drinking water. And those pipes are hardly the only source of contamination.

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Many residents only have to sniff the tap water to know something is not right.

"I fear giving it to my children directly unless I boil it," said Enam Mohammed Ali, a 36-year-old mother of four in the New Baghdad district in the eastern part of the city.

The water crisis began as a symptom of the problems that plagued reconstruction efforts in the early years of the war. Extremists attacked infrastructure projects, including electricity stations and sewage plants, to undermine support for the US and its Iraqi allies. Law and order broke down, with looters stealing pipes, power lines and other equipment.

But now, the recent decline in violence is raising hopes that the government can focus on repairing critical public services crippled by war and neglect. Perhaps the most complex: trying to control what goes into waterways and what comes out of Baghdad taps.

Two-thirds of the raw sewage produced in the capital flows untreated into rivers and waterways, Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said in his quarterly report released Wednesday.

US and Iraqi officials insist that the tap water in most of Baghdad is of at least fairly good quality because it comes from less polluted areas north of the city. In fact, more Iraqis nationwide have access to potable water now than before the war - 20 million people compared with 12.9 million previously, according to Bowen's report.

But some Baghdad neighborhoods, notably New Baghdad and Baladiyat, are not so lucky.

There, the Tigris is so filthy with sewage and other pollutants that the local treatment facility can only do so much. To make matters worse, sewage then leaks into the potable water pipes. On Friday, the US military announced the opening of a water distribution site to prevent the mixing of sewage and drinking water in New Baghdad and Baladiyat.

It comes none too soon.

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