Four million people in the southern Iraqi province of Basra are water insecure, despite the Shatt al-Arab (formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) flowing through the region. For many years, factors such as reduced water flow, sea water intrusion, pollution and mismanagement of the waterway, have reduced the quality of the river as a fresh water source and its suitability for potable uses and agriculture. Water insecurity has also destabilised other parts of the region, with much of Iraq suffering from regular power shortages since the US-led invasion, which have exacerbated the effects of extreme droughts and hot summers in the south.
In recent years, protestors in Basra have demanded public services and infrastructure to improve the quality and availability of water. Since the 1980s, Basra residents have been unable to use tap water for drinking or cooking, with even the poorest households having to shoulder the economic burden of purchasing filtered water.
In August 2018, 180,000 people were hospitalised in Basra with symptoms that suggested contaminated water was the cause. In connection with those hospitalisations, Human Rights Watch found evidence of algal blooms feeding off pollution at points in the Shatt al-Arab where it runs through Basra city. Further satellite imagery showed an oil spill in the river north of Basra in July 2018, before the influx of hospitalisations began.
Poor governance stemming from mismanagement and corruption, affects many facets of the water crisis in Basra. Corrupt officials allow industrial waste to be dumped into the Shatt al-Arab, which adds to the pollution caused by 40 per cent of the city’s sewage draining into the river as a result of the neglected sanitation network.
Basra province has enormous oil wealth, with the region’s oil output accounting for 90 per cent of Iraqi Government revenue. In August 2018, the oil ministry recorded its highest monthly revenue of US$7.7 billion. Authorities, however, prevent that oil wealth from being appropriately distributed to public infrastructure projects. Basra’s contribution to the national economy is disproportionate to the level of investment received in return, which remains a point of contention for the protestors.
In March, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi met with the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, to discuss the prospect of a co-ordinated clean-up operation in the Shatt al-Arab, with the aim of restoring it both as a trade route and a source of fresh water. In a joint statement published after the meeting, the governments announced a plan to begin co-ordinated operations in mid-July, with promises from the Iranian Government of increased flows from the upstream Karun River to assist in flushing pollutants and salinity out of the waterway.
The main factor impeding action in Basra, however, continues to be divisions between the major Shiite-led political coalitions over Iranian influence. Mahdi was chosen as a compromise candidate by the competing political blocs when Iraq’s previous Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, withdrew his candidacy in September 2018. That followed the disintegration of his alliance with the populist cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, after he fatally cracked down on the protestors in Basra during the summer of 2018.
There were fears that Iraq would be left without a government for an extended period of time following the general election in May 2018. That would have made it difficult for Iraq to negotiate with Iran on common issues, including water management. Prime Minister Mahdi has been able to appoint independent members of parliament to the foreign affairs, oil, health, electricity and water ministries, among others. That could make it easier for him to manage Iraq’s resource challenges but, as no political coalition commands a parliamentary majority, he will still require the support of the competing factions.
The lack of public infrastructure investment from federal authorities, in comparison to Basra’s natural oil wealth, has encouraged provincial authorities to try to reduce ties with Baghdad. The Iraqi constitution allows a province to become an officially recognised federal region under the conditions of a majority referendum. There are fears outside of Basra that such a move, if it were to gain popular support, could leave the region susceptible to outside influence and encourage the further fragmentation of the country.
The feeling remains in Iraq that if the situation in Basra does not improve, it could be a catalyst for the downfall of Mahdi’s short time in office. As protests in Basra continue every Friday, the appeasement strategy of the Iraqi Government remains a recurring pattern of empty promises, supplemented by recent reports citing high rainfall this year, which are used as an excuse to prolong inaction.
Regulating the amount of pollution going into the river, creating a public advisory system for use in the event of another health crisis and allocating public funds to support the health services and improve sanitation in the city, are essential steps that must be carried out if Iraq is to avoid further destabilisation.