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Last Updated: Friday, 23 July, 2004, 23:52 GMT 00:52 UK
Health fears grow in polluted Iraq
By Caroline Hawley
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

It's not just the violence in Iraq that is keeping doctors busy. The country is facing an environmental crisis.

Iraq's polluted River Tigris
The River Tigris is now a source of disease

One of the main problems is waste water pouring out of Baghdad's main sewage plants.

Iraq's ancient sewage system collapsed during the war and insecurity is hampering efforts to repair it.

Not a drop has been treated yet at the Rustumiya works, which was damaged during the war and then looted.

Much of Baghdad's untreated waste, the sewage of more than two-and-a-half million people, is now flowing straight into the River Tigris.

The mighty river has sustained civilisation in Iraq for more than 7,000 years. The water is meant to give life, but now it is a source of disease.

Crumbling infrastructure

Repairs are under way, but they are way behind schedule.

Iraqis are doing the hard labour here. American contractors, who used to come every day, now only show up once a week because of security concerns.

Even before the war, the country's infrastructure was crumbling because of sanctions and neglect and misrule. Then, in the chaos that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the looters stripped away essential fittings.

Iraq's polluted River Tigris
Untreated sewage is being directed straight into the river

Getting clean water to her people is now the main priority of Iraq's first-ever environment minister. Mishkat al-Moumin says decades of wars, added to the effect of sanctions, have given Iraq one of the world's most polluted environments.

Coping with the crisis is, for her, a daunting challenge.

"We do have lack of equipment, we do have lack of experience, we do operate in very difficult circumstances," she says.

"Imagine yourself that somebody throws you into the sea, asking you to swim when you don't know how to swim and you don't have any equipment - what will you do? This is the situation here."

Spreading disease

And so, behind the bombs and the bullets that have claimed so many Iraqi lives, another quieter tragedy is unfolding and taking its own terrible toll.

At a local paediatric hospital, a doctor checks up on two-year-old Fatima Nasser, who has been sick with diarrhoea for two months and is now badly malnourished.

The child, who recently learnt to walk and talk, can now only cry or lie listlessly in her hospital bed and the likely culprit is dirty water.

The family has no running water. Her mother says they buy it in by tank, but do not know what the source is.

"Things haven't got better since the war," she says. "We still have no water and no sewage system. There are lots of people in my area whose children are falling ill."

More than half the children now being treated at the hospital have water-borne diseases. The doctors say they can only treat the symptoms of the real problem - the state of Iraq's infrastructure.


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