Cholera warning as Red Cross tries to restore clean water

Justin Huggler
Wednesday 26 March 2003 01:00
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Red Cross workers were trying to restore a clean water supply to Basra yesterday as ferocious battles raged outside the town and fears grew of a humanitarian disaster. The World Health Organisation warned that the city of more than a million people was facing the danger of an outbreak of cholera.

Basra's residents, who have had no clean water since Friday, have resorted to collecting drinking water from rivers around the city, which contain untreated sewage. Small children are most at risk.

British army commanders, whose troops are outside Basra, said there had been a change of strategy and the city was now a "military target" because of the urgent need to address the risk of a humanitarian disaster.

Basra's clean water supply was cut when cables funnelling electricity to the Wafa al-Qaed plant, which provided most of the city with water, were destroyed on Friday during a US and British bombardment. The international Red Cross (ICRC) said it had sent a team into Basra despite the fighting between British and Iraqi soldiers,after obtaining guaran- tees from both sides.

The team was able to connect generators to supply the water plant with power. The work will enable the plant to resume treating water and pumping it to Basra's residents once the pressure builds again.

But Florian Westphal, a spokesman for the ICRC, warned that the generators were unlikely to be able to provide enough power for the plant to run at full capacity and supply all of Basra's urgent needs.

"It cannot be a permanent solution to run on generators, because you have to cut them at times to refuel them or let them cool down," said Mr Westphal. "But it will definitely be a major improvement on the current situation." ICRC engineers were trying to repair the damaged electricity cables.

There has been recrimination over who was responsible for the damage, after Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, denied that American and British bombing had been aimed at the water supply. He claimed the damage could have been an act of Iraqi sabotage.

The Iraqi authorities have claimed they will solve the crisis by sending clean water into Basra, according to al-Jazeera television.

Red Cross engineers had restored 40 per cent of Basra's water supply by Monday, using other water plants. That supply, however, was being drawn from the saltwater Shatt al-Arab waterway, instead of the freshwater Tigris.

There are grave fears about reports from the city that residents are taking drinking water directly from rivers, a move that could lead to an outbreak of disease. The head of the United Nations Children's Fund, Unicef, said she was very concerned at the dangers children were facing in Basra. There are fears of an outbreak of diarrhoea, which already accounts for three quarters of deaths of Iraqi children under five. Unicef said it wanted to take clean water into Basra by truck, but was unable to get access because of the fighting around the city.

The United Nations, whose secretary general, Kofi Annan, called for urgent action on Monday to restore the water supply, said yesterday that it wanted to establish a "humanitarian corridor" into the city for aid deliveries, but formal negotiations had still not started.

The civilian population appears to have been a victim of American and British miscalculations over their forces' reception in the city. American and British soldiers had expected to be greeted as liberators, but have instead faced fierce resistance from inside the city.

British army commanders were talking of making Basra a "military target" so they could take in humanitarian aid. There will be fears of further danger to the civilian population of Basra if fighting spreads inside the city itself. Already, the Iraqi authorities have claimed that up to 77 civilians were killed in the American and British bombing of Basra.

Al-Jazeera showed harrowing images of a young boy with the back of his head blown away. The television network said he had been killed in the bombing.

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