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Water Quality is Huge Concern for Iraq - 2004-07-23

While oil may be the key to Iraq's future, clean water is a far more immediate concern. The country has a bountiful supply of water from two main rivers making the country capable of tremendous growth. However, the quality of Iraq's water has so bad, it is being blamed for the majority of illnesses in the country.

Iraqis will tell you that security is their number one concern. A reliable supply of electric power is next on the list, followed closely by the need for a safe water supply. Iraq has an abundant supply of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but the quality of the water is in critical condition. Iraq's interim Minister of Water Resources, Abdul Jamal Rashid, says there is a long list of reasons for the poor quality of the water supply.

"Iraq has suffered from a lack of maintenance, lack of proper operation of the systems. Pollution, contamination, all of these are really negative aspects of our resources," explained Mr. Rashid. "Whether it's water, air and land has been polluted, has been contaminated as a result of lack of maintenance and as a result of long years of war and destruction."

For example, at least 250,000 tons of raw sewage a day is pumped into the Tigris river. And, that's not all.

"Raw sewage, raw material, industrial waste, I think these are all negative aspects. And, we are really seriously thinking about it," he said. "But, to protect our rivers from raw sewage, from industrial waste, from other chemical waste it needs planning. It needs time to implement the projects. It needs capital to invest in it. And, we are thinking about it. Everybody is concerned about the quality of water in our rivers."

Iraq's ministry of health says 70 percent of illnesses in Iraq are caused by contaminated water.

Mr. Rashid says there is still yet another major concern regarding the country's water resources, potential acts of terrorist sabotage. "We have certain precautions, certain safety nets. We have guards on our projects and we have our staff monitoring the projects and our reservoirs and our dams," he says. "So, we hope we will be able to protect it from terror action but obviously terror can strike anywhere. Of course, we are concerned. But, I hope we are doing our best to protect the nation's water from terror action."

Health officials say life expectancy in Iraq has dropped from 66 to 59 in just 10 years. They say Iraq's deteriorating environment is the main reason why. But, like most of Iraq's ministers, Mr. Rashid complains there is little his ministry can immediately accomplish while acts of terror continue.

"Security is a problem and is delaying political progress, is delaying our objective to achieve democracy in Iraq, is delaying the development of the nation, delaying people's freedom," he said.

Even so, Mr. Rashid says he remains very optimistic about Iraq's future. He says, if Iraqis were able to persevere through decades of oppression, wars and totalitarian rule, iraqis will surely see their way through the current conflict with terrorists.