Water under Siege: The Crisis in Southern Iraq

May 22nd, 2003 - by admin

by By the Center for Economic and Social Rights –


(April 5, 2003) – In urban centers throughout southern and central Iraq, millions of civilians are facing disease and possible death due to inadequate access to water as a result of the US-British invasion.

In Basra, 100,000 children are threatened with severe illness due to a crippled water treatment plant, according to UNICEF. As American troops advance on Baghdad, the city of five million has lost electric power and the population there also faces a pubic health crisis from water-borne disease.
International law on this matter is unambiguous – depriving people of life-sustaining resources is a war crime.

While President Bush has warned Iraqis not to commit war crimes, Anglo-American forces at the gates of Baghdad risk committing war crimes themselves against a population that is half children.

Water is fundamental to life. No one can survive without sufficient water for drinking, cooking, washing, and general hygiene. For this reason, international law recognizes access to safe water as a basic human right – “indispensable for leading a life in human dignity” – as well as an integral component of the rights to life, health, and housing.
The current invasion of Iraq by the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia poses a grave threat to the right to water of Iraq’s 24 million inhabitants, almost half of them children under the age of 15.
Anglo-American military forces have already laid siege to numerous urban centers in southern and central Iraq, disrupting electrical, water and sanitation systems that sustain millions of civilians. With the approach of summer, when temperatures in this region regularly exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the likelihood of water-borne disease epidemics is alarmingly high.

In Basra, the Anglo-American blockade deprived one million residents of access to safe drinking water for almost two weeks. UNICEF warned that “there are 100,000 children in Basra at risk for severe fever and death because one water treatment plant stopped functioning.” The regional spokesperson for UNICEF described a “most dire” humanitarian crisis:

“The situation is leading to a rise in disease and we’ve already seen some incidents of cholera now in the south, as well as what we call Black Water Fever, which is extremely deadly if you’re under 5…[The cholera outbreak] is of extreme concern to us because not only does it show that there’s been a major impact due to unclean water in the area, but also our ability to get in and reach these people in the middle of a combat zone is extremely limited right now.”

The public health crisis in Basra provides a window into the possible fate of Iraqi civilians in Nasiriyah (population 560,200), Najaf (585,600), Kerbala (572,300), Hilla (548,000), Amara (351,100), and Baghdad (5.8 million). Civilians in Baghdad are especially vulnerable given expectations of intense aerial bombardment, a tight blockade, and fierce urban combat aimed at toppling the Iraqi regime. On April 3, power was cut to 90% of Baghdad–the result of damage to the Al-Doura power station during the American capture of Saddam Airport.

United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross have alerted the international community to the growing water crisis throughout southern and central Iraq. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated that “humanitarian assistance would have to be provided by the United States and its coalition partners in those areas under their control, consistent with their overall responsibility under international law.”

Before the war, US and British leaders assured their publics that “liberating” Iraq would be a quick and clean military operation, relying on high-tech precision weapons to minimize civilian casualties. The Iraqi people, especially the long-suffering Shi’a majority in the South, were expected to welcome Anglo-American forces. This scenario has not materialized and the Pentagon has called for an additional 120,000 American soldiers to supplement 250,000 already in the Persian Gulf.
It now appears likely that Anglo-American forces will continue blockading cities in southern and central Iraq in preparation for direct urban combat. If as a result electricity is disrupted for extended periods, Iraq’s entire structure of civilian life support – public health, water and sanitation, and food distribution – will collapse, with devastating consequences for the civilian population.

The Anglo-American military strategy would therefore impose disproportionate costs on civilian life and property in violation of the most fundamental principles of law and humanity. Political and military personnel on all sides of the conflict who issue or carry out illegal orders are subject to prosecution for war crimes.

In fulfillment of their lawful duties, the Center for Economic and Social Rights urges all warring parties–the US, UK, Australia, and Iraq–and all organs of the United Nations–the Security Council, General Assembly, and Secretariat–immediately to establish and respect:

• A cease-fire to enable impartial humanitarian agencies, independent of any military forces, to restore and maintain life-sustaining services to Iraqi civilians.

• Ongoing humanitarian corridors to enable aid agencies to ensure the survival of vulnerable civilian populations throughout the conflict.

• Withdrawal of Anglo-American military forces to positions held before March 19, 2003, to allow the United Nations to fulfill its mandate of resolving the Iraq crisis in accordance with the UN Charter and international law.

A full copy of “SPECIAL REPORT: WATER UNDER SIEGE IN IRAQ: US/UK Military Forces Risk Committing War Crimes by Depriving Civilians of Safe Water” may be found at http://www.cesr.org/iraq/docs/waterundersiege.pdf.