Flooding leaves thousands homeless

Flooding in the southeast of Iraq has destroyed at least 180 homes and forced more than 8,000 people to flee in recent weeks, according to an international NGO working in the area.

Two children may have died from water-borne diseases in Al-Fuhood district near Nasiriyah as a result of the crisis. Residents living around Nasiriyah, some 375 km southeast of the capital, Baghdad, were caught unaware by the rising water in the marshland area, which reached crisis levels a week ago, according to reports from the International Medical Corps (IMC).

Some people were lucky enough to stay with relatives but others have been left without a roof over their heads and aid workers say people are in need of emergency shelter.

The flooding resulted from a combination of heavy rains and dykes removed recently from the sides of irrigation ditches following the fall of former president Saddam Hussein. The traditional marsh region was almost completely dried up by the former government for political reasons.

"We had to use boats to get to some of the places," a senior official with the IMC based in Iraq, Rabih Torbey, told IRIN. "It was a combination of nature and god knows what kind of re-flooding schemes," he added.

IMC will distribute water purification tablets, blankets, plastic sheeting and pots and pans, since many families lost all of their possessions in the flood, Torbey explained. Workers were also trying to find ways to pump water out of areas where houses were damaged so they could be repaired.

The flooded area is in the marsh region and although there has been no official plan to re-flood it, as it stands next to the Tigris River, rumours have abounded in recent months that British troops based there would open up all dams and dykes currently blocking an extensive network of irrigation ditches and channels.

International experts have said it will take up to 15 years to bring the marshes back to their natural state. Many Marsh Arabs, as they are called, are dependant on farming. Of the estimated 250,000 people who were living in the marshes in 1991, as few as 40,000 remain. Tens of thousands fled to neighbouring Iran or moved to safer areas within Iraq. Human rights groups estimate that 100,000 Marsh Arabs are displaced within Iraq.

Hundreds of others have taken over former military barracks in and around the capital in recent months, looking for work and better housing conditions. Several streets and schools were also destroyed in the region. Much of the area is below sea level, making it prone to flooding.