UN humanitarian briefing in Amman, Jordan

Fadela Chaib, WHO spokeswoman

Likely Impact of Water Shortage in Basra

During the last 24 hours the World Health Organisation has received reports of serious water shortages being experienced by the people of Bazra, Iraq’s second city. As many as 60% of the city’s 1.7 million inhabitants are reported to lack access to clean, safe water. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been working with local authorities to find a temporary solution.

The WHO is concerned. Lack of safe water increases disease and death rates, particularly among children. The three major child killers in Iraq are acute lower respiratory infections, diarrhoeal diseases and measles. These account for 70% of deaths in children under the age of five.

When the water supply is cut, people use water that is not clean or safe for drinking, cooking and hygiene. It frequently contains sewage, and increases the rate of diarrhoea (with a risk of cholera and dysentery). The result is dehydration and – especially among infants – death. Pregnant and breast-feeding women, and older people, are also at serious risk.

In similar situation in Iraq in the past, diarrhoeal disease has accounted for between 25% and 40% of deaths during the acute phase of an emergency, and 80% of deaths in children under the age of two.

The operation of water and sanitation plants in Iraq, many of which were damaged during the Gulf War, continues to be affected by lack of spare parts and maintenance. As a result, the drinking water supply in the country is periodically interrupted. Deterioration in the system increases the risks to people's health.

WHO and UNICEF staff are still working in Iraq – moving medicines and supplies to accessible locations. They cannot yet reach the people of Basra but are poised to assist as soon as circumstances allow.

WHO, UNICEF and other agencies have pre-positioned emergency health supplies both inside and around Iraq. WHO has teams of international experts on standby - are able to travel at short notice, once the security situation allows, and to assess and respond to health needs inside the country.

Respect the neutrality of medical facilities and staff: Statement by WHO Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland

On March 25th Dr Brundtland reminded all parties to the conflict in Iraq to fully respect the neutrality of medical facilities and staff. She said “Medical and humanitarian staff in Iraq are working to help civilians receive the medical and other vital support they need. They give help equally to all who ask and must be protected from the impact of the conflict which has just begun. I call on all those involved to avoid any and all attacks directed at health personnel."

More information

For further information contact WHO spokespersons:
Fadela Chaib in Amman (00 4179 475 5556) or
Iain Simpson in Geneva (00 4179 475 5534)

The following WHO specialists are available to respond to media questions:
Dr G Popal, Head of the WHO country office in Iraq (+962 795 7092);
Dr Mohamed Jama, Deputy Regional Director, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office, Cairo (+202 276 5026 );
Dr Jim Tulloch, WHO Regional Health Co-ordonator, Larnaca (+4179 509 0640);
Dr David Nabarro, WHO Executive Director, Geneva (+41 22 791 2363, +41 79 217 3446)