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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Basra: almost 300,000 children at risk of waterborne diseases

Aid agencies take the lead as government fails to combat widespread water crisis

Young school girls cross a trash ridden patch of water on stones in the middle of the road on their way home in Basra. AFP.
Young school girls cross a trash ridden patch of water on stones in the middle of the road on their way home in Basra. AFP.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are at risk of waterborne diseases in the country's south, an aid agency has warned.

The collapse of appropriate sanitary facilities in Basra's schools is putting more than 277,000 children in danger, the non-profit Norwegian Refugee Council told The National on Wednesday.

"The situation in schools reflects the situation in the city," said NRC's media coordinator in Iraq Tom Peyre-Costa. "It’s even worse in schools because of the high concentration of children in overcrowded platforms - the risk of transmission is even higher.”

Once dubbed the Venice of the east because of its canals, the level of pollution in Basra's water supply has caused more than 100,000 people to seek medical assistance in what are now overcrowded hospitals.

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The country’s health and education departments provided the NRC with a list of schools that are in urgent need of assistance.

More than half of the city's 800 schools require emergency support.

“Local authorities are also overwhelmed by the situation and are in need of desperate support from external actors, they really lack the technical capacity,” said Mr Peyre-Costa.

Though the government claims to have a 20-year plan to rehabilitate the water supplies, the only actors currently equipped to alleviate the dire situation are aid agencies, as Baghdad continues to suffer from a three-year war against ISIS.

“We urge donor governments to fund the response to this unfolding disaster before it’s too late,” NRC’s Country Director Wolfgang Gressmann said in a statement on Tuesday.

A primary school teacher in Basra told NRC that first year students are suffering from intestinal problems because of a lack of hygienic lavatories.

The water crisis has also forced thousands to leave their homes. Some 3,780 moved out of their rural homes, according to the agency.

Officials in Basra blame the central government for overlooking the crisis.

“The number is increasing by the hour but the central government is too busy to address the issue as cabinet formation is underway,” Mohammed Al Tai, a prominent politician from Basra, told The National.

“Water in Basra contains toxic and deadly substances, such as bacteria and chemicals leading to disease. Symptoms of diarrhoea, vomiting and rash are common," Mr Al Tai said.

As well as water scarcity, oil-rich Basra province suffers from frequent power cuts, a stagnant economy, poor health services, widespread corruption, unemployment and an agriculture sector devastated by drought. This gave way to the rise of violent protests over the summer.

Dozens of demonstrators were killed and several nights of violence saw public buildings and the Iranian consulate torched in Basra city.