In the battle against jihadists in northern Iraq, the village of Sayramun was recaptured in February but remains as isolated as ever and crucially still has no drinking water.
“There’s no water in the area,” Said Ahmed Fathi, a resident of the village nestled in a picturesque meander of the Tigris River but marooned in a key military staging area on the edge of the targeted city of Mosul.
The nearest water treatment plant has not functioned in months and restrictions on civilian movement in this area used by dozens of daily military convoys mean private vehicles are banned in Sayramun.
“So here are our children collecting water from the river… and river water really isn’t suitable for human consumption,” Fathi said.
Ruqaya, wearing pink trainers and a bright orange dress, walks down the hill with a dirty plastic jerrycan to fetch water from the river, a task that falls on the five-year-old girl because her father is sick.
She pauses by the roadside as a convoy of Iraqi Humvee vehicles hurtles past and then resumes her daily march to the Tigris while helicopters buzz overhead.
Electricity has not been restored to Sayramun and the local water treatment plant also remains offline, forcing residents to drink boiled river water.
“How do we even boil the water? Until now, we’re still using fire wood and small kerosene heaters. We don’t have gas either,” said Fathi.
“We’ve had some bad cases… no deaths but poisoning because of the water,” he said.
“Nobody knows about us here in this village… We just want the plant to be fixed,” said Thannun Yunis, a 14-year-old boy from Sayramun.
Some 70 families have returned to the village since the area was retaken from the Islamic State jihadist group by Iraqi security forces, but the lack of water is an obstacle.
“Even 60 years ago, our situation wasn’t this bad, we have regressed dozens of years,” said mayor Hajj Abu Mohammed, who was among the villagers who decided not to stay in the tented camps they were taken to by the military when the Mosul offensive was launched.
Access to water isn’t always much better in the many camps that have mushroomed around Mosul since Iraqi forces launched their operation to retake the jihadists’ last major bastion in the country.
The camps are overcrowded, there isn’t enough bottled water for everybody and the water that is trucked in hasn’t always been adequately treated because too few plants are operational.
At one of the largest displacement camps in the area, in Hammam al-Alil, Yasser Ahmed is filling a jerrycan from a tank.
“They give us water bottles but not enough for drinking and cooking, so we use this water after filtering and boiling it,” the 37-year-old man said.
He explained that he then uses purification tablets distributed by the camp authorities to improve the quality of the water and use it for cooking.
Going back with his family to his neighbourhood of Maamun in west Mosul is not an option, he said, because the water situation there is even worse and people are using polluted wells.
Apart from direct clashes, the combination of air strikes and the countless bombs set off by the jihadists often cause significant damage to the water distribution networks.
AFP reporters met some civilians who had returned to their homes after the security forces retook their neighbourhoods but then packed their bags again and left the city a second time due to the lack of water.
In Mosul, many residents are willing to brave the risk of ongoing fighting to go home but the lack of drinking water is holding them back.
“Temperatures are rising fast. People need safe drinking water and they will need a lot of it in the weeks and months ahead,” the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, told AFP.
Temperatures are already hovering between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius (95 and 105 Fahrenheit) in the Mosul region and regularly top 50 at the height of summer.
The United Nations Development Programme, which is spearheading reconstruction efforts in Iraq, “is doing everything possible to speed up repairs to water treatment plants”, Grande said.
“A lot of progress is being made but there is a huge amount still to do.”
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