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May 10, 2008

Iraqis Running Out of Water in Rising Heat

by Ahmed Ali and Dahr Jamail

BAQUBA - The water supply is drying out in what was once the agriculturally rich Diyala province north of Baghdad. Baquba, the capital city of Diyala, is now running out of water both for drinking and for irrigation.

The water supply has been hit by power failures. The central pumping station has been running short of electricity over the last two years.

The pumping station is located between two districts in conflict – Hwaider, which is predominantly Shia, and Jupenat, which is mostly Sunni. For two years now, fighting between Sunnis and Shias here has led to reduced water supply.

"The Diyala river passes by the two villages before the pumping station," resident Zuhair Mahmood told IPS. "They try to change its stream to deprive the other of water for irrigating their farms. The diversions mean relatively little water can reach the station."

Often, Mahmood added, "farmers irrigate their farms by setting up pumps on the banks of the river, which further contributes to reduced supply to the station."

Some farmers have demanded that the pumping station be supplied directly from the Diyala river upstream of the conflict area.

"But this suggestion was rejected because people know that the Diyala river carries the bodies of those killed in the sectarian fighting," said Abdul-Qadir Omran, a now unemployed trader. "It is not good for drinking, and psychologically it is unacceptable."

People of Baquba are used to seeing bodies floating by in the Diyala river and have long since ceased to use water from the river or fish in it.

Rising summer temperatures have made these problems worse. Many families like to use air coolers that rely heavily on water. Without some cooling it is difficult to sleep through the heat.

"Air coolers can be operated by simple generators, while air conditioners need high electricity, and there is a problem with the electricity," Nasir Jacob, an employee with the Diyala province water authority, told IPS. "People prefer to use all available water for cooling, more than even for a bath; forget washing cars or watering our gardens."

"With the tremendous need for water in summer, pumping may not be sufficient for all residents," Mohammed Abid, father of a large family, told IPS. "Many families spend whole nights waiting for piped water in order to fill their holding tank."

Some have dug their own wells but this brings its own problems, an engineer at the directorate-general of water for the city told IPS on condition of anonymity.

"Water from these wells may be mixed with sewage water," he said. "Our towns and villages have no sewage networks, and even if they exist, they are not systematic." Locally discharged sewage often seeps into the water reserves below.

In the face of the water shortage, many farms and orchards are now desolate, and their owners jobless. Iraq now has to import food and vegetables, adding to the difficulties of local farmers.

According to an Oxfam report released last July, 70 percent of Iraqis do not have access to safe drinking water.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Ahmed Ali and Dahr Jamail write for Inter Press Service.

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