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Iraq Grapples With Water Shortages, Pollution

The low level of water in the Euphrates river is cause for concern.

The low level of water in the Euphrates river is cause for concern.

United Nations officials say an inadequate supply of water and pollution in Iraq have led to severe health problems, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reports.

Salam Abdel Munim, the spokesman for UNICEF in Iraq, told RFI on March 22 that as a consequence of the water shortage "some 500,000 Iraqi children access their water from a river or stream, and another 500,000 access their water from open wells."

Abdel Munim said the second-biggest killer of Iraqi children is severe diarrhea caused by polluted water. He noted that nearly 250,000 tons of sewage or "heavy water" are discharged into Iraqi rivers every year.

Aoun Dhiab, the director of the national center for water resources, told RFI that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers -- the country's two largest -- are "in a dire state," especially the Euphrates, "which has been reduced to a mere creek due to insufficient quantities of water released by Turkey and Syria."

Dhiab said Iraq needs a minimum of 500 cubic meters of water to flow per second into the Euphrates, but currently receives only about 300 cubic meters per second. He warned that unless something is done to release more water from Turkey and Syria into the Euphrates, the summer growing season in the Euphrates river basin will be at risk.

Dhiab said early rains in the winter helped to replenish reservoirs along the Tigris, but since mid-March rainfall has been unnaturally low. He said if that pattern continues through April, it will lead to a water shortage in the Tigris River as well.

A UN press release on World Water Day, marked on March 22, quotes a recent international report warning that "the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could completely dry up by 2040 because of the compounded effect of climate change, reduced upstream supply, and [an] increase in domestic and industrial use."

The UN statement says about one in every five Iraqis -- about 6 million people -- do not have access to safe water. Most of these people live in rural areas.