Iraq's Water Woes

It's illegal, to say nothing of unhealthy — but for tens of thousands of Iraqis displaced by sectarian violence, tapping into a main line is the only access to water of any kind.

According to U.N. figures, barely one in three Iraqis have access to clean drinking water.

Waterborne diseases like diarrhea — the most prolific killer of children under 5 — are on the increase. In some areas, it's up as much as 70 percent over last year.

Providing essential services is a cornerstone of American military counter-insurgency strategy.

The U.S. has spent $1.5 billion dollars on water projects since the invasion four years ago. Another half a billion has been budgeted for this year and it all adds up to the proverbial "drop in a bucket."

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It took U.S. and Iraqi engineers 10 months to refurbish one pumping station to provide 10,000 people with clean water.

Security permitting, the officer in charge aims to increase that by a factor of five.

"Once we reach that goal, we will be able to supply water for approximately 20 percent of the local area full time," says Cmdr. Steve Frost, of the U.S. Navy Seabees.

For the other 80 percent who often have to walk miles to bring home a bucket of water, that means more than most people can imagine.

"We had one Iraqi lady who came up to us, gave us a hug and shook our hands and said 'Thank you' because it was the first time they've ever had potable water running in their house," Frost said.

The problem is so dire that after a three-year break, the U.N. has resumed trucking water to cut-off areas. It's a costly and dangerous way to fill cooking pots and give a few kids a welcome shower.

Locally made ice is the only way many families have to cool food.
The plants claim they use clean water. But at one plant, before it becomes ice, the water provides a cold shower for the men who run it.

After that, well, it becomes whatever is needed to beat the 110 degree Fahrenheit heat in a place where clean water is as much a dream as peace.
  • Michelle Singer

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