HL Deb 13 May 2003 vol 648 cc131-3

2.59 p.m.

Baroness Northover

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What actions they are taking in the light of the cholera outbreak in Basra, Iraq.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed 18 cases of cholera in Basra in the past 15 days. No deaths have yet been reported. A cholera task force has been established in Basra consisting of the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation, the UN Children's Fund and NGOs. DfID has cholera kits sufficient to treat 11,000 people on standby in Kuwait in case any are needed.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she recall the warning from the UN and the WHO that if Iraq was attacked there would be a great danger of a cholera epidemic, especially among children? Is she aware that most of the cholera cases she mentioned are among children under five? Surely, unless all the stops are pulled out, cholera could rapidly become not endemic but epidemic. Can she tell the House what preparations were made in advance to repair the water and sanitation systems that had previously been badly damaged and which were damaged again in this conflict? Furthermore, how soon will it be before the people of Basra have access to safe water and sanitation systems?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I am aware that there were concerns about the possibility of a cholera outbreak. The noble Baroness will be aware from the Answers I gave to Questions yesterday that cholera is normally endemic in Iraq at this time of year. The problems that we have seen with water and sanitation systems are increasing the risk of further outbreaks. We are very conscious of that. That is why repair of the water and sanitation systems has been a priority.

The noble Baroness will also be aware that over many years in Basra Saddam Hussein's regime did not repair the water systems. So this is an inherited problem with which our forces in the area are dealing.

Lord Rea

My Lords, with regard to the health of the people in and around Basra, will the Government back an independent investigation—preferably carried out by the World Health Organisation—into the apparent increase of cases of cancer and congenital abnormalities ascribed by many to the use of depleted uranium during the first Gulf war?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, that issue is somewhat wide of the Question.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, will my noble friend relay to our troops in the Basra enclave area the appreciation of many Members of the House of Lords for the exemplary work they did in the early stages following the conflict to bring in vital supplies of water to the area?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I would be perfectly happy to do that. This House has expressed its appreciation on many occasions. We cannot overestimate the very good job our troops have done.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, at what point will the coalition authorities, or the civil authorities who replace them, be in a position to let contracts for the revitalisation of the water systems in southern Iraq? Will whoever does that bear in mind that there are many Iraqi engineers living in exile who would be delighted and honoured to play a part in the reconstruction process?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will know that there is an ongoing political process to lead to the establishment of the interim Iraqi authority which will, over a period of time, take over responsibility for the administration of Iraq. I am afraid that I cannot give a timescale with respect to the letting of contracts, but I am sure that the IIA, once it is up and running, will be well aware that there are qualified and professional people in Iraq who can carry out some of the work.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell us something about the situation in Baghdad? That would appear to many of us to be much more susceptible to a great increase in cholera than Basra, where it appears to be reasonably under control.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the situation in Baghdad is improving. The noble Lord will be pleased to know that there are now some 200 UN workers in and around Baghdad from outside Iraq and some 3,000 Iraqis, who have worked with the UN in the past, engaged, for example, in food distribution. So the picture is improving, although the security situation remains fragile. There is ongoing fighting, so we must be very careful. The UN agencies and NGOs are all very conscious of that.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, can the Secretary of State take the matter further? How many NGOs are involved in helping and with what success?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Baroness about the number because it changes daily. I shall be very happy to do that. I think we can report some success. There is clearly an issue with respect to co-ordination. As I said in response to previous questions, the security situation remains a matter of some concern. That limits what some of the NGOs can do. I shall be happy to write to the noble Baroness and give her further information on this issue and to put a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.