Water flowed today into Umm Qasr.

First it came chaotically -- a truckload of bottled water tossed to several hundred residents of this southern Iraqi town who have been without reliable access to water since the war began.

But then it came gushing through a pipeline that had been hastily extended over the past few days from northern Kuwait and will supply this part of southern Iraq with as much as 400,000 gallons of drinkable water a day, more than enough for a town whose population is said to be between 20,000 and 40,000.

"This is tremendously important," Col. Dave Bassert, a U.S. civil affairs officer with the 354th Brigade, said of the pipeline's first full day of operation. "From a health standpoint, we're getting into malaria season, and cholera is prevalent here, so clean drinking water is essential. It's also a tangible way of demonstrating our commitment to the Iraqi people -- that we're not here simply to invade them, that we do care."

Additionally, he said, it will help bring calm to Umm Qasr. A port town considered vital to humanitarian efforts, Umm Qasr is one of the few places in Iraq that coalition forces say they control, and even that can seem in doubt hour by hour.

This afternoon, an explosion occurred between the port and the town center, and last night people in a military compound in the port area were told to move away from windows and sleep within reach of protective clothing because of intelligence reports suggesting the threat of a chemical weapons attack.

For much of the night, the town, which has had no electricity, was illuminated in the orange glow of a steady succession of flares. Every day brings another loud explosion of weapons caches being blown up by coalition forces, and supporters of President Saddam Hussein are thought to still be a destabilizing presence in town.

On top of that, the lack of water has been a major security concern because, as Bassert said, "When people are deprived of basic necessities, they're going to do whatever it takes to get those necessities, and water is highest on the list."

Only two weeks ago, water here wasn't a concern at all. For years, the system had been efficiently run by the ruling Baath Party, which hired truck drivers to make daily runs to the city of Basra and return with water that they would then sell to the residents.

With the new pipeline now in place, residents will initially receive the water for free. "We don't want to create a welfare state," Bassert said. "But the fact of the matter is jobs are scarce and money is scarce."

Small fees may be charged later, he said, so residents wouldn't become dependent on the idea of free water. "We want the Iraqis gainfully employed and self-sufficient," Bassert said.

He also said there were broader problems in the effort to bring water as well as other humanitarian supplies to Iraq.

"Finding trucks," he said. "Finding truckers. Finding fuel. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."

An Iraqi child waits for water in Safwan, Iraq, near Umm Qasr. Iraqis rush to fill containers with water given out by British forces in Safwan.