Cholera sweeps through communities in Iraq every year, rendering thousands sick and many dead in a matter of months. In 2007, the country suffered the worst outbreak to date with nearly 5,000 cases and 24 deaths. Though not as catastrophic, another outbreak occurred in August 2008, infecting hundreds and killing at least five people by September.
As in so many countries, Iraq’s annual cholera outbreak is the result of not having a safe water supply or functioning waste management systems. Years of neglect, mismanagement and conflict have left Iraq’s water and sanitation systems dilapidated, a disconnected network of broken pipes, leaking sewage systems and decaying treatment plants. As a result, many Iraqis are forced to get their drinking water from unsafe sources such as contaminated rivers, leaving them vulnerable to cholera and other waterborne illnesses.
International Medical Corps has worked in Iraq since 2003 and recognized from the beginning that the health and quality of life for the Iraqi people could not improve without clean water and proper sanitation. Over the last four years, International Medical Corps has completed 260 major water and sanitation projects that now benefit more than two million people.
In 2006, International Medical Corps repaired a water distribution system in Ramadi, one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq. Before International Medical Corps intervened, the treatment plant ran at only 26 percent capacity. In addition, there were 128 breakages in the pipes connecting the treatment plant to Ramadi’s households, leaving many without any water at all. Today, thanks to this program, approximately 100,000 people now receive safe drinking water for 10 to 12 hours a day, with enough pressure to even fill rooftop tanks.
South of Ramadi, in the Iraqi marshlands, International Medical Corps rehabilitated the Amarah sewage treatment plant, which serves 150,000 people. When International Medical Corps started the project, looters had ransacked the treatment plant, resulting in untreated water being dumped directly into the Tigris River, the main source of drinking water for the local residents.
“The disruption of the sewage system led to the spread of diseases such as acute diarrhea, typhoid and cholera,” says Ismael Shaker, International Medical Corps’ water and sanitation officer in Iraq.
The International Medical Corps team built 11 new water treatment units in marsh areas that had never before had access to clean water. For areas with units that no longer worked, International Medical Corps repaired rundown systems so that they could produce safe, drinkable water. The plant now treats 36,000 cubic meters of water a day. Pollution levels in the Tigris River and nearby marshes have decreased, while the livelihoods of approximately 100,000 local farmers and fisherman have improved as a result of having a functioning water and sanitation system.
“We are grateful to International Medical Corps, as they were the first one to take emergency action after the war,” says the director of the Amarah Sewage Office Foud Kudair.