Contaminated water and inadequate sewage disposal has become a fact of life for the people of Iraq. Before the first Gulf war in 1990, 95 per cent of those living in urban areas and 75 per cent of inhabitants of rural communities had access to safe supplies of drinking water. But conflict, sanctions and neglect have all taken their toll on the country’s water and sanitation infrastructure over the past two decades.

According to the World Bank, less than 50 per cent of Iraq’s rural communities have access to clean drinking water. Coverage is more widespread in urban areas but, even so, a quarter of Baghdad residents are unconnected to the water distribution network. Outside the capital, less than 8 per cent of households are connected to the sewerage system.

Iraq relies on the extraction and treatment of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for its drinking water, which is then piped to communities. But many water-treatment plants are dilapidated and out of use, or run at less than 50 per cent capacity due to a lack of electricity, chemicals or spare parts.

In some areas, half the water entering the distribution system is lost through leaks. In the absence of supplies, many people have no option than to use untreated water from rivers.

Following the official cessation of the second US-led military operations in 2003, a joint United Nations and World Bank report estimated it would cost $6.8bn to rehabilitate Iraq’s water and sanitation infrastructure.

Two major reconstruction programmes, the Baghdad water supply and sanitation project, and the water supply, sanitation and urban reconstruction project, were launched on the back of the report to address the country’s most pressing needs. The projects use financing from the World Bank-administered Iraq Trust Fund, set up as part of the international response to the reconstruction effort. The first project is focused on rehabilitating treatment plants, pumping stations and sewer systems in Baghdad, while the second entails similar projects in Irbil, Karbala, Maysan and Al-Muthanna.

However, attempts to rehabilitate assets under these schemes have been frustrated by insurgent activities. A 2005 report to Congress by the US Government Accountability Office said contractors working on water-related projects in Iraq regularly faced intimidation and violence, and equipment was often looted. The report said projects that were completed were subsequently not able to be operated and maintained effectively because of a lack of skilled staff, spare parts and chemicals. Sabotage was also a recurrent problem.

A project update on the Baghdad water supply and sanitation project written in March by the World Bank re-emphasises these problems.

“Project implementation is affected by the ongoing security situation, weak institutional capacity and lagging performance of the consultants, who have had difficulty completing assignments in a timely manner,” says the report. “The projects are expected to be completed in 2010.”

Small successes

But even in the face of such adversity there has been some success. According to a July report to the US Congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, since 2004, the US has spent about $2.46bn on water and sanitation projects in Iraq, adding more than 2.5 million cubic metres a day (cm/d) of water treatment capacity and 1.2 million cm/d of sewage treatment capacity.

Much of this work has been carried out by the US Army Corps of Engineers. It has completed 691 water projects and is currently working on a further 31 schemes. On the wastewater side, it has completed 186 projects and is working on 14 more.

The completed projects include an upgrade of the Karkh water treatment plant, which supplies 50 per cent of Baghdad’s drinking water, new water treatment plants in Sadr City and Irbil, and a wastewater plant in Fallujah. But there is still much work to do elsewhere in the country.

A third major reconstruction programme, called the emergency water project, was launched in April 2008 to improve access to water in the areas of Ghammas, Al-Nasr, Wasit and Maimona over the next five years. In these areas, 60-70 per cent of the population are unconnected to the water distribution system.

A glimmer of hope came in April when the Council of Ministers (cabinet) approved a five-year reconstruction spending initiative, which included $5.5bn for water-related projects. But with the fall in oil prices, that figure is understood to have now been cut by as much as 60 per cent.

Iraqi citizens will have to wait even longer for these basic necessities to be restored.