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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Analysis: Iraq's Other Dirty Water

Council on Foreign Relations

October 12, 2007
Prepared by: Toni Johnson

Cholera in Iraq continues to spread (AP) after early reports in September indicated health officials had a handle on the outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed more than three thousand cases and estimates another thirty thousand people have come down with a milder form of the disease. So far, more than a dozen people have died. In Kirkuk, a city that accounts for two-thirds of the cases, one resident told the Associated Press: “Now we fear cholera more than the violence.” The WHO also believes the Iraqi outbreak has spread to Iran (IRIN) via Iraqi refugees .

Cholera is a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea and rapid dehydration, and can lead to death. Risks of cholera epidemics increase when poverty, war, or disasters force people into crowded conditions with poor sanitation. In 2006, the WHO reported (PDF) more than 240,000 cases of cholera worldwide, including more than six thousand deaths. The majority of cases occurred in Africa. In Iraq, a lack of clean water—a chief culprit for spreading the illness—makes it hard for health officials to halt the outbreak.

Some health experts point to restrictions on chlorine—a chemical widely used to disinfect water—which have grown tighter since insurgents began using chlorine on trucks in bombing attacks (al-Jazeera) in the spring of 2007. Earlier this year, UN agencies noted that Iraq still relied on the United Nations to provide the majority of the country’s chlorine and other water-treatment chemicals, and pointed out that “administrative bottlenecks” (PDF) were preventing the government from using its “largely unspent resources” to address the issue.

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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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