Water supplies in southern could be undrinkable within weeks, leaving millions of people vulnerable to disease, according to UNICEF.
Although many pumping stations that were knocked out during the U.S.-led war on Iraq have now been repaired, they are facing dwindling supplies of chlorine gas needed to purify the water they draw from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, said Marc Vergara, a spokesman for the U.N. children's agency.
Only a small proportion of raw sewage is treated in Iraq, with most being dumped in the country's rivers. With the stations set to run out of chlorine gas within two weeks, completely untreated water could soon be pumped directly to Iraqi homes.
UNICEF urgently needs US$3 million to buy enough gas to purify water for 4 million southern Iraqis over the next three months, Vergara said. He also urged coalition forces to accelerate gas deliveries to the stations.
UNICEF also plans to boost the number of tanker trucks it is sending to the region from neighboring Kuwait, from 20 to 100 a day, Vergara said.
Aid agencies are concerned that drinking unsafe water could cause outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and diarrhea.
"Diarrhea, which is annoying in the West, is deadly in this part of the world," Vergara said. The illness, which causes dehydration and accelerates malnutrition, already is one of the biggest killers of Iraqi children.
Vergara, who returned recently from the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, said he saw doctors in a city hospital register 40 cases of children with diarrhea in one morning the same number admitted during the entire month of April 2002.
Aid groups have so far been unable to collect accurate numbers of cases in other southern cities, including Basra, but fear the situation is much worse there because of problems trucking water.