MOSUL, IRAQ – The families start lining up every day near the well in Mosul’s Karaj al-Shamal neighborhood, filling their large plastic containers with sulfurous, nearly undrinkable water.
As the battle to clear out Islamic State drags on around them, the residents of the wrecked city in northern Iraq have given up waiting for the government or international aid groups and started digging their own water out of the rubble.
They don’t always hit the cleanest sources.
“We have no water, no electricity, no salaries, and no food. What are we supposed to do? Eat grass?” says 56-year-old Fasla Taher, as she take her containers home to the nine orphans and two widowed daughters under her care.
Shaker Mahmoud, a carpenter and day laborer, says he helped dig the well, funded by a local benefactor. The same unnamed donor has paid for five others in the area and local charities have dug some more.
Families try boiling the water to make it safer to drink, but the smell and the taste linger. “It is not fit to drink. I took it to a lab once and they said it was 15-25 percent sulfur,” says Mahmoud.
The supply is still invaluable for washing — at least 10 children had died in the area because of unsanitary conditions since the fighting started.
Islamic State militants overran the city in 2014, taking it as their biggest base in Iraq and triggering counterattacks that have destroyed large parts of the infrastructure, including the water pipes.
A government offensive that started in October has cleared the militants out of the eastern side of the city. But the ultra-conservative militants are holed up in the Old City on the western side of the Tigris river and fighting seems to have stalled.
The United Nations this week also reopened a water sanitation plant, part of a program that it hopes will supply all re-taken areas in three months — still a long wait for the residents.
“It’s now been weeks, months really, since there has been safe drinking water here and that is why the opening of this water treatment plant is just so important today,” Lise Grande, UNDP Resident Representative for Iraq, told Reuters on Sunday.
About another 25 other plants are in line for repairs.
Beyond Mosul itself, officials say it will take $35 billion to restore all facilities in surrounding Nineveh province, though the central government in Baghdad has not yet made funds available.
Back in Karaj al-Shamal, the residents are still doing the work for themselves, as they wait for their own treatment plant to be repaired.
Progress has been slow. Soon after Islamic State quit their area, locals pooled money to repair their pipeline, only to watch it destroyed in an air strike the same day the work finished.
So they resorted to their own wells, and queuing up outside with their large plastic containers.
“This is all set up by generous people. The state is not involved,” Mahmoud says.
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