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April 12, 2003
Column #1,128

Behind the Euphoria: Thirst, Darkness, War

     Like most of America, I exulted in the euphoria of the collapse of Saddam Hussein, symbolized by the pulling down of his 40 foot statue, and the cheering mob who stomped on it.

     However, what concerns me is a report on Wednesday by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that the port city of Umm Qasr, the first city liberated 20 days earlier, "is without running water, security, or adequate food supplies." 

     Friedman, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his foreign reporting, is glad America has broken the "old order - Saddam's regime - but it has yet to put in place a new order, and the vacuum is being filled in way too many places by looters, thugs, chaos, thirst, hunger and insecurity."

     That frightens me.

     The key issue is water. And that issue is connected to electric power.

     Fortunately, the military did not knock out the electric power or water filtration systems with bombs. However, neither the electric power nor the water systems have worked in most Iraqi cities for days or weeks. 

     Why? Probably few Iraqis are working. They are afraid to leave home and risk being shot by either side. 

     Iraq is a desert nation, whose people cling to a narrow band of fertile areas along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Babylon in Biblical times. The area has suffered in a period of drought, with water levels in the rivers down by 60 percent, according to CARE.

     Every day, 500,000 tons of sewage in the Baghdad area is dumped into the rivers. Even before the war, the decrepit water treatment facilities were struggling to make the water drinkable. Before the war, CARE repaired water systems for 4 million people. 

     However, without power since the war, pressure is lost in the network, and "it does the opposite of filter contaminated water, which is sucked to the potable water distribution pipes," said a CARE spokesman. If there is no power, people can't flush toilets. They overflow and seep into the ground polluting water sources. 

     CARE's workers could get the system running, but they are fearful to venture in war zones. They can only go out when they judge it is safe.

     Meanwhile, I get three press releases a day from USAID, our government's major relief agency. A recent one said a ship with 58,000 tons of wheat left an American port. When I called to ask about water, I was told USAID had pre-positioned 100,000 tons of food in nearby countries. It seemed almost irrelevant.

     "What about the water, which has been off for up to three weeks?" I asked.

     "We have been doing assessments. The country is not safe enough for us to send our officers in," said Alfonso Aguilar. "The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been repairing the water purification system in Basra."

     Indeed, I learned that ICRC bravely crossed through the British lines of war into the chaos of central Basra to repair the water system's generators in a temporary cease-fire, and got the water back on. But when a Red Cross worker tried to take spare parts to a pumping station in Baghdad, he was killed in a crossfire on Wednesday. 

     The ICRC has also been working with all seven hospitals in Baghdad. On Monday, 100 wounded people an hour visited a single hospital. By Wednesday, the numbers slowed to 10 an hour. The hospitals have backup generators, but after running for three days solid, break down. Red Cross workers helped repair them and have driven in water trucks.

     Catholic Relief has worked through a local partner, Caritas Iraq, to send in enough water purification tablets for a million people for one day, plus back-up generators and water tank trucks. It has pledged $1 million for this work, and notes there are 800,000 Christians in Iraq, but that its help is targeted at the needy, who are mostly Muslim. 

     The Pentagon was surprised by my questions about water. One spokesman asserted, "In the southern cities, which are more secure, we have moved in with help for civilians." I quoted Friedman's column that contradicted his bland reassurance, and was immediately given a phone number for the Central Command's headquarters in Qatar. The colonel who answered the phone referred me to a person in the White House, who did not answer the phone.

     Moral: Only private relief agencies are doing anything. I urge you to contribute to the Red Cross (800-HELP NOW), or Catholic Relief (800 736-3467), or CARE (800 521-CARE).

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