HL Deb 12 May 2003 vol 648 cc8-11

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to improve the water supply to rural areas of Iraq.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, ongoing security concerns mean that access to rural areas is still limited. Few assessments have yet been made of the needs of rural communities. Supplies of water in rural areas come from a variety of sources, including piped water, wells and rivers. We have had no reports that rural areas suffered substantial disruption to supply as a result of the conflict. Improving supplies of water in the longer term will need to be considered as part of the broader reconstruction of Iraq once there is a UN mandate.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Before I ask my supplementary question, I would like to add my congratulations to those of my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever and of all the others to the noble Baroness on her new position as Secretary of State for International Development. It is a true reward for her achievements and we all wish her well for the challenges that lie ahead. We also appreciate the Government recognising the importance of your Lordships' House with another Cabinet post.

According to CARE International, people in rural areas depend on a central water infrastructure to get their supplies, which they are not currently getting. At the moment, that infrastructure is working only precariously; that is due to the lack of investment and repairs. Even before the war, the infrastructure was in very bad shape and available in only some cities. Rural areas have pretty much had the last claim on whatever water there is. What plans are there to alter the centralised infrastructure of Iraq's water and sanitation systems so that rural areas have an equal claim rather than the last claim to water? That will avoid exacerbating the problems being experienced.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. We have worked closely together on development issues and I hope that we will continue to do so.

I said in my original Answer that it has been quite difficult to assess the problem with respect to water supplies in rural areas. Some information is coming to us from NGOs but we must examine the issue in some detail. Maintaining clean water has been a priority for us. The ICRC and others, including the UK military, have done excellent work to repair water stations and supply water by alternative means in the interim. In many parts of the country, the situation has improved. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that we must ensure that rural areas are treated as well as urban areas and are considered to he part of our overall reconstruction effort.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, as the World Health Organisation special envoy for the region, I offer warm congratulations to the new Secretary of State for International Development. I am sure that everyone in the World Health Organisation will warmly welcome her appointment. She is absolutely right about the underlying weaknesses of the water system. Is she aware that in the early 1980s Saddam Hussein cut the water infrastructure budget from 15 per cent of the agriculture budget to 5 per cent and never recovered it, in order to buy more weapons? After the Basra uprising he retailored the water supply so that those who had opposed him most fiercely got no water in the consequential rebuilding of the water supply. Will she work closely with her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and empower the Army and, in view of their arrival, the Royal Engineers in particular, to do as much work on this as possible in rural and city areas? The fact that security is so very difficult means that we badly need the Army.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. She rightly said that Saddam Hussein did not, for example, repair water systems in Basra; the current difficulty with water supplies is not new. However, the situation in Baghdad was different. The noble Baroness will he aware that our military has, under the Hague and Geneva Conventions, specific responsibility with respect to immediate humanitarian assistance. That assistance will continue, pending putting in place the interim Iraqi authority.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I am delighted by my noble friend's appointment. This Question and t he previous Question concern widely the health of the people of Iraq. Is the food distribution programme. which was previously run quite efficiently by the Iraqi government under the Oil for Food programme, still up and running?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. I confirm that much of the food distribution programme under the Oil for Food programme is still in place and that individuals have been turning up for work. That is why the humanitarian crisis with respect to the distribution of food has not been as problematic as we had feared. That distribution process is pretty much still in place.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, has the noble Baroness seen the recent reports about the widespread damage to the desalination plants in southern Iraq, including the looting of parts of those plants? Those parts had no purpose outside those plants; they were simply being taken. Does t hat not call for what one might call the secondary forces of law and order? I refer to military police working with civilian police to ensure that such random looting stops as soon as possible.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I was not aware of the specific example of desalination plants although I entirely agree with the noble Lord that in terms of the overall security situation, we need the military and others. He will be pleased to know that in Basra we have some 600 police now operating. We want that to be repeated across the country.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I join in the congratulations offered to my noble friend. Will the Government seek the assistance of Red R, the Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief? It consists largely of consulting engineers and their employees and has considerable experience in dealing with water problems in disaster areas.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for providing information about the Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief. The department is already in touch with it. We have used its advice in previous humanitarian crises.

Forward to