Baghdad in a time of cholera


Matthew Schofield: Baghdad’s drinking water is so polluted that an outbreak of cholera is expected

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Story Transcript

Baghdad in a time of cholera

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC. It’s been six years since the American invasion of Iraq. What is life like for ordinary people? Daily life? Services? Infrastructure? Has the reconstruction campaign worked or not? Joining us from Baghdad is Matt Schofield. He’s the Kansas City Star deputy national bureau chief. He’s been the McClatchy bureau chief in Europe before he got to Baghdad. He’ll be heading back to the States soon. Thanks for joining us, Matt.


JAY: So you’ve been working on the whole question of water services, the daily life of the Iraqi people. What have you found?

SCHOFIELD: What I found is that this is what defines Iraqi life right now are complaints about the services they don’t have. Talking to the environmental minister of Iraq the other day, she notes that 36 percent of the water in Baghdad is unpotable. There are areas where it might be 90 percent potable. But if you have undrinkable water even 10 percent of the time, people don’t trust the water. So when you go down the streets of Baghdad, what you notice are store after store after store has crates of drinkable water for sale. Thirty to forty percent of sales in grocery stores are potable water. People can’t trust the water. And those who can’t afford drinkable water are sick all the time. The children, the babies are always sick. The adults are. They walk around with stomach [inaudible] nausea from waterborne diseases. Cholera has hit in the summers; it will come again. They’ve just warned that this cholera’s coming again. If we don’t do something dramatically different very soon, we’ll have another outbreak of cholera this summer. Beyond that you have dysentery, which is very common, and a number of other waterborne diseases. The water is atrocious. And this is in Baghdad. Thirty-six percent of the water is bad. It gets much worse when you get outside. When you go down to Basra, you have stories of worms actually coming out of the tap. You have stories in the smaller towns of atrocious water. And then you have stories of – yes, there are stories worse than that. When you get to electricity, you have, if you’re lucky, in Baghdad you have 10 hours a day of national electricity. Generally, you have 7 hours. Beyond this, what you have is generator power. Generator power creates a din that never ceases in this place. But also it creates a smog and a smell to the city the people don’t like. It’s a constant hassle. People have to decide, "Do I run outside as soon as the lights go out and turn the generator on and crank the generator up through the pull cord, or do I wait?" If you go down the streets of Baghdad, the other thing you’ll see in electronics stores are sidewalks absolutely jammed with generators for sale. You know, in an average block, there might be two or three hundred of them just sitting on the sidewalk, and they’re moving very quickly.

JAY: Stuart Boen, who is the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction for the US government says something like $32 billion dollars has gone—no one knows where it went. It was supposed to go to reconstruction. Why can’t $32 billion get at least some clean water in Baghdad?

SCHOFIELD: Well, I mean, to be fair, there is some clean water, but nobody knows exactly how much clean water. So nobody knows how much they should trust that the clean water is actually flowing through their tap at that moment. Beyond that, you have some serious problems that aren’t fixable with $32 billion. You have one issue in the very poor areas. There are a number of former ministries that people flooded into; immigrants into Baghdad flooded into and took over old ministries, old, vacant lots. They built houses and they built homes out of what used to be offices, small offices. I was in one the other day where you have about 5,000 people living in what used to be a small air force administration complex. Those people want services. The sewer is not nearly adequate. And so they’ve piped out of their bathrooms, straight into the streets. They also want water, and they don’t necessarily have running water in these things, so they’ve dug down through the streets into the water pipes and used small rubber hoses to run into their homes from there. The seals aren’t particularly good, and so what happens is you have raw sewage running out of the homes that builds up into large pools that are surrounding these little jerryrigged pipes that they’ve created, and the water mixes, the sewage water gets into the clean water pipes, which is a problem both for the people who live in these very poor areas, but also everyone on that water main. This is one of the areas that they really don’t have anything to do about. But the other side of this is—.

JAY: Okay. You just lost your lights there, which—has that got anything to do with what’s happening to electricity in Baghdad?

SCHOFIELD: Yeah. This is several times a day. The power goes out several times a day in Baghdad. This is fairly normal. You don’t even notice it anymore. And this is a constant question in Baghdad, which is: the United States is spending an enormous amount of money over here. Why don’t we have services? You have the—. People complain about corruption. Corruption is endemic. Just in the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of talk in Parliament about how deep is the corruption in this place. And the answer is: pretty deep.

JAY: Tell you what, just before you keep going, move the top of your computer up a bit so we use your computer as the light on your face here, ’cause we’ve lost electricity.

SCHOFIELD: I’m afraid I can lean right in [inaudible]

JAY: Maybe you need to touch your mouse or something and get the luminance level back up, ’cause it seems to have dimmed here.

SCHOFIELD: Yeah, I’m doing that. It’s slowly dying on me.

JAY: Oh, the computer itself is dying.

SCHOFIELD: I apologize.

JAY: Yeah. Alright. Well, keep going. I guess this is what we’re talking about, the lack of electricity in Baghdad. Go on.

SCHOFIELD: Right. And, I mean, we were looking at a water project the other day. The money was spent. The money was made available. The project was made. And then, to be fair to as many people as possible, the water project, the sewer project, was given out to 12 different companies over about a mile. So they all put together their bit of the sewer line and the water line next to each other. I guess they were replacing both. The problem was they didn’t work together, and so, at the end, you had twelve lines that didn’t match up: they were using different-sized materials; they were using slightly different lines. Nothing quite worked. And so what you have is a mess, in the end. You have a year of disruption where the streets have been torn up, and in this particular [inaudible] But in the end you don’t really have a working sewer, working water line, a new line. You have stories like this that come from around Iraq all the time. —There. We’re getting some power back.

JAY: Oh. There we go.

SCHOFIELD: These are the constant complaints of Iraqis. Yeah. These are kind of—the generators just kicked in.

JAY: So continue your story. So, well, let’s go—if you take this sewage project, for example, then, this kind of civic chaos, did it exist before the invasion?

SCHOFIELD: The civic case did not exist before the invasion. If you look at the water program, the water pipes have been bad since ’84. You didn’t have the squatters moving into vacant lots and ministries, so you didn’t have people tapping into the lines illegally. Right now, there are six million people who use Baghdad city water on a daily basis. Five million people use it legally. That means one million people a day use it illegally. You didn’t have the one million people that are using it illegally. Those one million people sometimes are accidentally allowing sewage water, raw sewage, to leach into the drinking water pipes. Other times they dig down. They create a pipe to flush away their sewage water. They don’t really know what else to do, so they tap it directly into it. What this has done, this extra million people has greatly overwhelmed the system. And beyond that, you also have farms that are using this water, etcetera. There’s number of people illegally using the water. And the water pressure is very low, so people have to use pumps to draw it into their homes. Well, the electricity, of course, affects their ability to use pumps. It’s all a—every—it’s all a disaster right now [inaudible]. So services are just very, very difficult. Daily life is very difficult right now.

JAY: Now, there’s something in the range of, I think, two to three million—I’m not sure what the actual number of refugees that have left Baghdad, left the country to a large extent, are in camps in other, neighboring countries. Are people starting to come back? And if they do start to come back, where will there be services for all these people?

SCHOFIELD: Yeah, I was in Europe recently looking at this problem, the European refugees, Iraqi refugees, returning. And the answer I got definitively from there was, "No. Are you crazy?" People aren’t ready to come back there. Now, those who are in Jordan, those who are in Syria, I don’t know that they’re more likely to come back. What they’ll do is they’ll just fade into the city. And one of the things that’s really surprising about Baghdad and is really interesting about Baghdad is that nobody even really knows how many people live here. If you go to Sadr City, people will say, okay, well, Sadr City is this teeming mass of people. And there are probably 1.5 million people. But there might be 2 million people. There might be 2.5 million people. There might be 3.5 million people. Nobody really knows how many people live in Sadr City. You get population estimates in Baghdad everywhere from 5 million to 7.5 million. We tend to work with the 6 million now, because that seems to be the most common. But, I mean, people will just kind of fold into life here. When the refugees return, yeah, they’re going to further tax the system. But it’s already inadequate, so it’ll just be more inadequate.

JAY: There’s been some conversations here—doesn’t make it into the mainstream press or mainstream dialog very much, but that the question is: does the US owe Iraq more than just getting out? The issue of reparations, the issue of not just what happens on the political side of the possible breakout of other kinds of fighting over who gets to control the oil wealth, but even just on the daily life of civilians, this whole question of infrastructure, especially if the price of oil stays as low as it is, the amount of money available in Iraq to solve these infrastructure problems, what sense do you get from the Iraqi people of what they think US owes them?

SCHOFIELD: I think the Iraqi people understand that there were serious problems with infrastructure in Iraq before the United States arrived. What they also understand is that during the last six years there’s been a serious degradation, not necessarily because US tanks are breaking down power lines and crushing sewer lines, which—these are things that have happened, but they’re not the main problem. But you had two and a half years when the city was trying—. I was talking with the city water engineer the other day, and he said, you know, they have 500 Baghdad city engineers who were killed between 2003 and now. People were murdered for trying to provide clean water and trying to provide electricity, projects that have fallen apart because of murdered employees. You had projects that couldn’t be dealt with, water systems [inaudible]

JAY: Murdered by who? Murdered by whom?

SCHOFIELD: It depends on where you were. I mean, the sectarian violence. You had, you know, Shias killing Sunnis; you had Sunnis killing Shias; you have outside agitators; you had, you know, the al-Qaeda came in, and they were killing a number of these people. That was one of the problems with understanding Iraq for a long time and understanding Baghdad for a long time is that so many people were killing so many different people, it was tough to know exactly, you know, how to keep the score card. But what goes on with this is when we look at what’s happened with the services, yeah. I mean, does the United States owe Iraq better services? I don’t know. But I do know that it would be one way to make an enormous difference. It’s something if the United States could have gotten on top of in 2003-2004 might have made an enormous difference as well. You wouldn’t have had the support base, perhaps, that seemed to be there for insurgencies, for Shia militias, for al-Qaeda.

JAY: I mean, if there’s one thing to be done in terms of reconstruction, is it to focus on the issue of water?

SCHOFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, water’s the issue. And, you know, when we’re talking about Baghdad, we’re talking about a city that was formed because of the water. Baghdad was originally, you know, Baghdad al-Zawhaa, Baghdad the Garden. And it was plotted here to be a capital of the Islamic world, to be a capital of trade for the new world, and with the idea that this would always be a place where water was plentiful and clean and fresh, and you would have these beautiful gardens, and there would have been abundant fruit and food. And now you’re looking at a situation where there just simply isn’t enough clean water for people to live with. Yeah, water is essential to life. Electricity is important because, one, it helps form the water plants. But electricity is essentially the modern life. But you could live without electricity. You can’t live without clean water.

JAY: Is there any sense that in these plans of withdrawal between now and 2011 that there is a plan, a real, serious plan for the fixing of the water problem?

SCHOFIELD: Well, you have seen a number of water projects finished by the United States around Iraq. It’s piecemeal. One was announced just the other day in a small area, I think, south of Baghdad. And the United States is making efforts in some of these areas. The problem is Baghdad is a city of 6 million. It’s an enormously complex system. It’s very difficult to make a difference here, and it’s very difficult to make a difference in the major cities, ’cause they’re all common. Basra has an enormous problem, and they have the same sort of infrastructure problems. Remember, these are systems that were left unattended for 20 years while Saddam waged war on everyone in the region. And so—.

JAY: And also during a time of sanctions as well.

SCHOFIELD: Exactly. Exactly. Absolutely. I mean, you start with the Iran war, and then you move into the Kuwait invasion, and then you move into the sanctions, and then you move into this, you know, this most recent invasion. And this is just a long list of—if you want to understand the problems in Iraq, look what’s gone on with their services over the last 25 years and it’s very obvious.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Matt.

SCHOFIELD: Thanks for having me out.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.