There has been an alarming rise in disease, caused by drinking polluted water. The children are suffering most, found Livia Leykauf
Now the UN weapons inspectors have started their work in Iraq the immediate threat of war has subsided but the Iraq crisis is far from over. Even if war is averted Iraq is still suffering from the burden of the toughest economic sanctions ever imposed on a country and the majority of its people are living on the edge unable to get access to the essentials of daily life.
Many aid agencies including CAFOD in England and Trocaire in Ireland are watching the situation closely to see where they can offer the most effective support in the event of war. They are particularly concerned about the problems that will be caused by damage to the water supply. Sanitation and water systems in the country are already very ineffective, as economic sanctions have prevented engineers from updating and repairing the system properly.
The supply of clean water has worsened dramatically since the Gulf War. The water supply network reaches around 90 per cent of households in cities such as Baghdad, Mosul, or Basra, but in rural areas it's only about 43 per cent.
Through its sister agency, Caritas Iraq, CAFOD is working to help Iraq rebuild its water supply system but says it is currently in a woeful state.
Dr Naim M Noah, head of the engineering department at Caritas Iraq, said: "Even the ciritildng water is not as pure as it was 10 years ago, there are insufficient funds for repairs, it is extremely difficult to obtain replacement parts, and many qualified professionals have either left the country or switched to different sectors. Water and sewage treatment is frequently interrupted by power cuts."
According to a UNICEF report, the output of the overall water network has halved, with disastrous implications. Hospitals throughout the country are already seeing more and more cases of water borne diseases and any bombing strikes could completely destroy the ailing system and thousands could die through lack of clean water.
Eight-year-old Ann is just one of the victims. She was rushed into the Ibn Baladi Hospital on the outskirts of Baghdad with what appeared to be typhus. The doctor who treated her suspected she had been drinking contaminated water.
"There's been an alarming rise in disease in Iraq, hand-in hand with the worsening water quality, and we are seeing more and more cases like this" said Dr Rashid AlHan, head of paediatrics at the hospital.
Caritas maintains a range of water treatment and desalinisation plants in Iraq. The aim is to minimise the number of people turning to river water for their needs. The better the water quality, the less likely people are to fall prey to disease and infection, particularly high-risk groups such as children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and the elderly, who have much less natural resistance to disease.
However, one reason the water problem is so deadly is that many people in Iraq are already so weakened as a result of the sanctions.
The near blanket embargo on imports and exports has made it extremely difficult to maintain a balanced diet. Most families have had to cut meat from their diet. As a result many suffer from a lack of essential protein. This makes them all the more vulnerable to illness and disease.
Between 14 and 16 million people — one in three of the Iraqi population — receive regular food parcels as part of the UN "Oil-for-Food" programme. However, protein and vitamin levels contained in the rations are too low — leaving many people malnour
ished and vulnerable.
Consequently, every third child under the age of five in Iraq suffers from malnutrition, which weakens their metabolism leaving them susceptible to infection. Infant mortality stands at over 10 per cent. Through Caritas Iraq, CAFOD is providing vital help to many vulnerable families through their 13 well-baby clinics, which operate throughout the country.
"Practically all the children participating in our programme suffer from malnutrition, which is why here they are given additional food, particularly proteins because these are not contained in the UN food packages. For children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers above all, a balanced diet is vital for life and survival," said Dr Salwa Al Dawaf.
Four-year-old Alla, who is mentally and physically disabled, is just one of the youngsters who attends the Caritas Iraq health centre in Baghdad, She visits the centre regularly and is no longer frightened when the nurses measure her height or place her on the scales to be weighed.
Besides providing healthcare for the children the centres
run education programmes for women to learn about hygiene and nutrition that helps them care for their children at home. But it isn't easy to provide a balanced diet as one mother explained, "In the past meat was part of the daily diet in Iraq. It's part of typical Iraqi cooking and found even in very simple dishes. Nowadays at the very most we can afford to buy one small piece of chicken or lamb once a month."
A father accompanying his wife to the well-baby surgery added: "Although I have a permanent job and I earn reasonably well, we are not able to give our little Massara the food she needs to grow and thrive. The sanctions hit a very vital nerve. But we haven't hurt anybody. It's painful to see one's own child suffer."
In the year 2001 alone, 22,000 women and children took part in the well-baby plogramme, and 95 per cent of them came out of it stronger and healthier.
But the people of Iraq are suffering tremendously under the total trade embargo. "If anything else comes along now it'll spell disaster", said Dr Rashid Al-Han.