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Iraq's thirst for fresh water grows

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - On a scorching summer day in Baghdad, Qassim Dakheel squats in his yard and looks anxiously at his water hose, waiting for the water to flow.

Qassim Dakheel squats in his yard and looks anxiously at his water hose, waiting for the water to flow in Baghdad's Sadr city June 7, 2010. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

In Dakheel’s poor neighbourhood, the International Committee of the Red Cross delivers 140,000 liters of water a day by truck, without which 7,500 families would have no water. The government’s network of water pipes does not reach their homes.

Dakheel’s family of 27, which includes 10 children and 15 grandchildren, consumes 1,000 liters of water a day from the ICRC. But it barely meets their needs.

“We depend on this water truck. If it did not come for any reason, on that day a glass of water would be as precious as a human soul ... we would be left without anything. No bathing and no drinking water,” said Dakheel, 47.

According to government statistics cited by the ICRC, one in four of Iraq’s 30 million people does not have access to safe drinking water, a persistent problem seven years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Decades of war and international sanctions left Iraq’s infrastructure in tatters. In many areas like Dakheel’s, the government’s water pipes do not reach newly built neighborhoods where residents have constructed their own homes.

Sectarian strife in previous years left more than 1,500,000 Iraqis internally displaced. Dakheel, a Shi’ite, left his home in the Sunni area of Abu Ghraib, on the western outskirts of the capital, in 2006 to find safe shelter in the mainly Shi’ite district of Baladiyat in eastern Baghdad.

The ICRC water trucks start their mission early in the morning and run until 6 p.m. to make up for water distribution systems that are old or badly maintained, and further weakened by illegal connections and substandard plumbing in households.

“Reliable access to enough water of sufficient quality remains a major challenge for large parts of the population,” Julien Le Sourd, the ICRC’s water and habitat coordinator in Iraq, said in a report.

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According to Iraq’s Planning Ministry, 84 percent of the water that emerges from taps is clean enough to drink and the other 16 percent is contaminated.

“The national development plan for the years 2010-2014 will achieve a good amount of development concerning the safe drinking water, hopefully the percentage will rise to more than 90 percent,” Deputy Planning Minister Mehdi al-Alak said.

The ICRC started supplying Baladiyat in 2004 but with growing numbers of residents, its situation is worsening. Residents have asked for an additional 80,000 liters a day.

Raid Muhsin, mayor of Dakheel’s neighbourhood, said little of Iraq’s oil wealth trickles down to its people.

“This is a dereliction of no one but the government and its officials because so far not one of them takes care of us. As if we are not Iraqis,” Muhsin said, looking at the ICRC truck as it began pumping water into a 10,000-liter tank in the street. Each tank serves about 10 houses.

“Unfortunately, we got rid of one oppressive situation to fall into another ... we expected things would be better than before only to find ourselves sinking in misery,” Muhsin said.

Baghdad officials say they face problems producing water as well as distributing it. The city’s 7 million people need 3.5 million cubic meters of water a day but the city government supplies only 2.7 million.

Baghdad municipality last month said the scarcity would end within two years. A deal with Degremont, a subsidiary of Suez Environment, to reconstruct the city’s dilapidated water system started eight months ago and is scheduled to be finished within 20 months.

Inside the kitchen of Dakheel’s house, life seems frozen in a wait for water to wash breakfast dishes and clean the floor.

“We wait for the water truck to come, so we can start our work. The amount is barely enough for the whole day,” said Sanaa, Dakheel’s daughter, looking uncomfortably at piles of dirty dishes in the sink.

Dakheel does not expect any improvement even after the formation of a new government, following an inconclusive parliamentary election more than three months ago.

“I have been displaced for four years. I live now in a desert and it (the government) has not done anything,” he said. “Thanks to the people outside (Iraq) who have mercy on us.”

Editing by Jim Loney