Humanitarian Crisis Looms for Iraq, Aid Workers Warn

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
April 15, 2003

Skies punctuated by columns of black smoke, cities covered with dust, limited access to clean water and sanitation facilities, and looted hospitals are ominous harbingers of the post-war health problems facing the people of Iraq, warn health officials with government and international aid agencies.

Saddam Hussein's reign of terror, two earlier wars—the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988, and the 1991 Gulf War—and 12 years of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations have devastated the once prosperous country.

Public health workers say the most pressing health-related issues facing Iraq in the coming days and weeks are providing clean drinking water, ensuring access to medical and health care, and securing the food supply. All are dependent on halting the looting, vandalism, and arson currently underway.

"The looting has had devastating consequences for humanitarian relief agencies and civilians," said Sarah Zaidi, a researcher with the Center for Economic and Social Rights. "ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) convoy trucks have been vandalized, the UNICEF office was completely looted. People have gone into hospitals and taken blood supplies, antibiotics, beds, equipment—things you can't imagine they'd have any use for. Years of work are being destroyed."

Pitfalls of Dirty Water

The looting is also preventing much needed infrastructure repair work.

Three out of every four Iraqis live in cities and depend on treated water. Electricity is needed to process and pump water and to operate sewage plants. Power stations were one of the early targets of allied bombers, and power has been out in some sections of the country for nearly three weeks.

Even prior to the bombing, water treatment and power plants were decaying due to lack of replacement parts. The United Nations estimates that 500,000 tons of raw sewage was being dumped back into the country's waters on a daily basis before the war.

"Water quality and sewage treatment are a big, big problem that's been recognized for a long time," said Michael McCally, a professor of public health and preventive medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. "When we visited water treatment and sewage plants in January they were in pretty horrible shape. The Iraqi power system was generating about half of what it was 12 years ago. Now people are taking untreated water straight out of the rivers and canals—and hopefully boiling it, but they're low on fuel too."

Waterborne illness increased radically after the invasion of Kuwait. Health officials are preparing for a similar surge in Iraq.

Infants and children under five are particularly susceptible to waterborne diseases. Typhoid, cholera, illnesses caused by organisms such as such as Lysteria and Giardia, and viral gastroenteritis can all lead to diarrhea, which is one of the major causes of death among children worldwide. In Iraq, respiratory infections and diarrhea account for 70 percent of deaths in children under five years of age.

"When dirty water and malnourished kids are widespread, you get increased disease and death," said McCally. "These are totally preventable, treatable diseases."

Continued on Next Page >>


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