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Construction Begins on Iraqi Water System Reconstruction

By Pat Jones
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 4, 2004 – Iraqi and multinational force officials are taking on a $50 million program to bring 200 water treatment and sewage facilities in Iraq up to modern standards.

Besides repairing the water supply, the program will create hundreds jobs for the local economies, said Michael Stanka, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Two wars, decades of neglect, more than a decade of sanctions and insurgent attacks on reconstruction workers have left Iraq's infrastructure in deplorable condition; water and sewage treatment plants are falling apart and need immediate repair, he said.

Ensuring a reliable supply of potable water to the Iraqi people and restoring the country's water and sanitation systems are among the main goals in helping to rebuild Iraq, and. Water and sanitation systems are designed to protect public health, Stanka said, and years of outmoded operating practices and poor maintenance have made rehabilitation urgent. The project will go farther than merely restoring the system to prewar conditions, but will give the Iraqi people a reliable source of potable water, he added.

On some of the projects, workers will try to close the availability gap of the services. "The gap is when we install millions of dollars worth of equipment to provide water and sewage, but the residents have no way to access it," said Danielle Stephens, a construction manager for sewers in Baghdad. "If a home already has plumbing, we will connect to it. But, on homes with no plumbing, we will place a tap at the tie-in."

Although more than half the population has access to potable water, leaking pipes have contaminated those networks in many areas. The untreated sewage problem has affected tap water in Baghdad, even though potable water is treated. In poor areas, drinking water has been contaminated by untreated waste in groundwater that seeps into broken pipes.

For decades, officials lacked funds to repair cracks in the pipes. Facilities gradually became dysfunctional because of lack of maintenance, spare parts and a shrinking number of professional operating personnel. Water distribution networks generally cover urban areas, but quantities are insufficient. The problem is made worse by efforts to pull water from the supply system. Residents in some areas use small electric pumps to siphon water from the main, and end up sucking sewage into cracked pipes. In many cases, people have no alternative but to consume unclean water.

In July, Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City neighborhood suffered when an epidemic of hepatitis E broke out. Hepatitis E is clinically indistinguishable from hepatitis A disease, officials said. Symptoms include malaise, anorexia, abdominal pain, arthralgia, and fever. Hepatitis E occurs in both epidemic and sporadic-endemic forms, and usually is associated with contaminated drinking water.

The disease is most often seen in young to middle-aged adults. Pregnant women appear to be exceptionally susceptible to severe disease, and excessive mortality has been reported in this group. The best preventive measures are good sanitation and personal hygiene, officials explained.

Poor water and sanitation threaten two of the major resources in Iraq. Agriculture and fishing are main sources of income and sustenance for thousands of Iraqis in the rural districts and marshes.

Only half of the country's sewage treatment plants are operational. In Baghdad, the sewage treatment installations can't cope with an increased flow caused by population expansion. As a result, nearly 500,000 tons of raw or partially treated sewage are discharged daily into the rivers. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in water-borne diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, amoebic dysentery and diarrhea. Some areas use open sewer systems that overflow during the rainy season and cause a serious public health hazard.

Stephens said that while the water system improvements are critical to public health, she also gets a great deal of personal satisfaction from performing her job.

"At a ground-breaking (ceremony) I attended the other day, I had a man come up to me and ask me if it was true we are going to install underground sewer lines in his neighborhood to replace the open slit trench sewer that is currently in this area," Stephens said. "To see his disbelief that it could really be true, and his reaction and hope that it might happen, was incredible.

"It's people like him, and all the little kids who bombard you with questions about your age, name, if I'm married, do I have a kid, etc.," she continued, "that make all the hard work and effort everyone is putting into the programs over here worth it."

(Pat Jones is assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division.)

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