Due to corruption and negligence of Basra’s local authority, the city of water and oil, referred to as the jewel of Iraq’s south or the Venice of Middle East, was declared a devastated city in the summer of 2018 due to the contamination of its fresh water supplies and the disruption of all water purification plants in the region. As a result of the usage of polluted waters by the infrastructures of the city, tens of thousands of inhabitants suffered from poisoning in Basra that season. The state authority promised to conduct thorough investigations to find out the causes of the disaster. After three years, however, the investigation’s findings were never announced, and the promises made to contain the crisis were never met, further fueling the popular frustration.

The disaster of water pollution and cases of poisoning, in addition to the deteriorating economic and service conditions, caused violent demonstrations in the Basra governorate. Trending with the ongoing French protests, many were seen wearing yellow vests, denounced the great rift between the State and the people, as well as the neoliberalization of the authority’s institutions, which have become open shops housing businessmen and murderers. These demonstrations also raised questions about the ethics of the State and the principles of justice advocated by the Iraqi institutions. The secondary repercussions extended to the bloody October demonstrations in 2019, which claimed the lives of more than 700 innocent Iraqi youth, in addition to thousands of wounded and permanently.

State dysfunctionalities

In its report on this crisis, Human Rights Watch warned of the exacerbation of water pollution issues in the future. The report found that local state authorities “failed to immediately warn residents about the effects of contaminated water and how to avoid harm. The government didn’t  properly investigate or try to assess the possible causes of the diseases.”.

The report is based on dozens of interviews with Basra residents, experts and government officials, in addition to analysis of satellite images of the governorate. Those images revealed oil leaks in the waters of the Shatt al-Arab, the river formed by the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates before spilling in the Arabian gulf. It also exposed an increase in harmful algae that can cause abdominal pain, fever, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea when consumed by humans.

Environmental expert and academic Dr. Shukri Al-Hassan also discussed the widespread phenomenon of poisoning by saying: The waters of the upper Shatt al-Arab, coming from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, were originally loaded with large quantities of various pollutants that were mixed with marine salts coming from the lower part through the Gulf, which led to a chemical-environmental mixture called the transformation reaction. This interaction led to the formation of complex toxic chemicals, hence the water became lethal, and this is what we expect to appear during the next few months unless the flow of wastewater from the Tigris River is decreased. 

A local government source who refused to be named confirmed to The Red Line that “the central and local authorities have mobilised their efforts to contain the crisis.” However, the slumberous authorities in Iraq did not wake up until the blood and lives of Iraqis were already sacrificed. These State authorities have caused countless disasters since their establishment by American-led coalition forces in 2003. One of the most prominent chaotic event in the last years was the rise of of the Islamic State’s terrorist organization in 2014, which brought tragedies that will extend over generations as it caused unprecedented waves of displacement, migrations and genocides.

The anonymous source mentioned earlier also described that the water “was not suitable for any human or animal use,” during the summer of 2018, while hospitals at that time recorded more than 118 thousand cases of poisoning. Basrawis did not use the water for drinking, but the extent of pollution was so high that even using it to wash kitchen utensils caused the poisoning of a huge number of people. “Not all those who were poisoned visited hospitals; some did not even have the means to reach public hospitals.”, the source added.

Contamination continues

According to Salman Khairallah, the director of the Save the Tigris, an Iraqi NGO that focuses on protecting and raising awareness on water and environmental issues in Iraq, the water pollution crisis has existed for many years and is far from being over: “The government’s solutions do not meet required level of response in regard to the level of the crisis”, he assessed. 

As an example of structural problems crippling the water flow in Mesopotamia, Mr. Khairallah explained how the central government used the strategic reservoir of freshwater in Mosul Dam, thus depriving the Al-Hawizeh marsh of its vital inflow of water. These drastic measures are unsustainable and are threatening the Iraqi marshes. The other consequence of the retention of upstream water is the increase of salty waters coming from the gulf towards the inland, which is accelerating the desertification process of the region and leading to the disappearance of century old palm groves.

On the shores of the Shatt al-Arab and its channels in the Maqal area, the beating heart of Basra, the untrained eye can see the foul-smelling oil and algae spots. Bilal Rahim, a middle-aged man and boat rider, spoke to The Red Line about the extent of the pollution describing the water channels, where gardens and palm trees once spread. “These oases have become heavy sewage channels bringing sickness and distress.”, he claimed, adding that the Shatt al-Arab “ became a dumpster for oil companies”.

In the same context, Mr. Khairallah confirmed what was stated in Human Rights Watch’s report in 2018, stressing that local authorities hide information and systematically cover their failures, further increasing the impact of the disaster as it prevents any concrete action from being taken. Humat Dijla’s director also indicated that the local government did not announce any results related to the investigations that they had promised.

Dr. Walid Al-Moussawi, Director of the Environment Department in the southern Iraqi governorates, discussed the hydrographic issues faced by Iraq and its impact on the volume of pollution. “Pollution in the waters of the Shatt Al-Arab is present in large proportions, due to Iraq’s complicated topography.”, he told The Red Line, adding that Basra is the lowest ground in Iraq, and due to gravity pollutants come all the way from the northern regions. On these bases all polluted activities from sewage, industrial and agricultural waste are dumped into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers before converging and piling up in Southern Iraq. Hence they end up more concentrated in the Shatt al-Arab.

The causes of pollution

On more than one occasion, the local government of Basra complained about the lack of water releases allocated to the province. These water volumes are not sufficient for all Basra residents and can only supply one-third of the province’s population, according to press statements attributed to local officials.

The other reason for pollution is due to the environmental aggression launched by neighbouring countries against Iraq. As the water releases from upstream countries such as Turkey, which built many dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as Iran, which illegally diverted the course of the Karun and Bahman Sher rivers, eventually ended the process of water releases down to the Shatt al-Arab River. Cross-border water retention by Iran and Turkey is a major cause of the environmental crisis in the Shatt al-Arab, according to Al-Moussaoui.

Mr. Al-Moussawi explains that the water releases should not be less than 90 cubic metres per second at the beginning of the Shatt Al-Arab in order to ensure that the sea water remains within the boundaries of the city of Al-Faw, on the shores of the Arabian Gulf. In 2018, sea water reached the areas north of Basra, a precedent that had not occurred in the history of Iraq since the withdrawal of the Gulf waters from the areas of southern Iraq nearly ten thousand years ago, according to Mr. Al-Moussawi.

According to Mr. Al-Moussawi, sewage is the largest polluter in the Shatt Al-Arab waters. With regard to sewage treatment, there is only one plant to treat this water in Basra, which is the Hamdan plant that opened in 1982. This plant was designed to treat the equivalent of about one million people’s water sewage. This station is currently operating at less than 50% of its efficiency, knowing that the population of Basra has reached 4 million people, it is easy to foresee the consequences of the situation: the sewage dumped into the sewage networks of Basra is not fully absorbed and a large part of it is dumped into the seven water channels within Basra Governorate leading to Shatt Al-Arab.

Al-Moussawi and his teams have monitored about 700 polluting sites, including sewage water dumped in Shatt al-Arab River, and pollutants of the municipality department, from health services and industrial waste. The expert explained that the strategy implemented by local authorities was to push the waste towards the Gulf to get rid of it instead of treating it. “But even this strategy failed and the waste stagnated.”, the expert regretted.

In the same context, Mr. Khairallah expressed to The Red Line his assessment of the water crisis and the impact of neighbouring countries: “Iraq’s water share is being stolen in broad daylight without any deterrent,” Khairallah said. This encouraged Turkey and Iran to cut off entire tributaries. Khairallah, who hails from the city of Basra, noted that there are no international treaties or agreements since 2003 that guarantee the arrival of any percentage of water to Iraq, so Iraq depends on rain and strategic storage of fresh water and snow. Which portends a catastrophe that will destroy Iraq, and dry up its arteries.

As for the internal problems, Mr. Khairallah says that the authority in Iraq lacks “good management of water resources,” as the Iraqi government recorded in 2018 more than 23,000 environmental violations on the Tigris River. Half of these abuses were conducted by the government departments themselves, in addition to the other half being the responsibility of private companies that enjoy political protection, in addition to extravagance and lack of rationalisation of water usage due to the absence of a policy imposed by the civil authority such as fees and taxes. Mr. Khairallah agrees with Mr. Al-Moussawi that Basra does not receive its full share of water, and points out that the city “needs 75 cubic metres of water per seconds to push the salty waters of the Gulf”.

Dr. Shukri Al-Hassan stated that “the conditions surrounding the Shatt Al-Arab River do not bode well.” The amounts of water coming from the Tigris River is not bad, but the problem stems from the closure of the Karun River coming from Iran in the southern part of the Shatt al-Arab, which contributed 50 cubic metres of freshwater per second, which was a precious barrier in the way of the extension of the saltwater wave coming from the Arabian gulf, according to Mr. Al-Hassan.

While successive Iraqi authorities were focusing state resources on security and defence, vital resources like rivers and the follow up on sharing them fairly with neighbouring countries were neglected. As a result Iraq today is living an existential threat with more dams being built by neighbouring countries. At the end of the day, the Iraqi masses who paid the price of more than 40 years of war and sanctions, and misleading political elites, will pay the price of water scarcity and pollution.

VIASaman Dawood\Saad Nadhem