Baghdad slum settlements burgeoning

Sunday 07/08/2016
An Iraqi woman does the washing with her children near their home in an impoverished area on the
southern outskirts of Baghdad.

Baghdad - Oum Ahmad considers herself lucky because she has a roof over her head, even if it is made of tinplate. The 39-year-old widow paid 7 million Iraqi di­nars ($6,000) for the 60-square-metre dwelling built illegally on state-owned land in one of Bagh­dad’s proliferating slums, which lack proper sewers and basic infra­structure.
“My husband was kidnapped and killed at the height of sectarian violence in 2007, leaving me with five children and no income,” Oum Ah­mad said. “The landlord expelled me from my previous home when I could not pay the rent but, with the help of my parents and in-laws, I was able to secure enough money to buy this place.”
Oum Ahmad said she is not concerned that her dwelling near Baghdad’s al-Karkh neighbourhood was built illegally on public property. “Yes, the land belongs to the state that deprived us of our rights,” she said. “I work as a cleaning lady and have no compensation for being wid­owed, so there is no harm in ex­ploiting the property of the state af­ter it had let us live in poverty and humiliation.”
There are many citizens like Oum Ah­mad. Baghdad has about one-third of all slum areas in Iraq, housing about 2.5 million people — 7% of the population.
Slum housing sprang up after the US invasion in 2003 and grew fol­lowing sectarian violence in 2006- 07 when hundreds of thousands of citizens left their houses and mi­grated without having an opportu­nity to sell.
The large-scale displacement, further aggravated by the war against the Islamic State, increased the need for housing in Baghdad. Amid an absence of the state, families started building irregular dwellings on agricultural land or land owned by the state. This type of housing now has its own market in Iraq.
Real estate agent Rafeh Mostafa said there was an unprecedent­ed surge in demand for housing. “Many people fleeing violence left their properties behind, preferring to live in tin houses, while others took advantage of the situation by moving into irregular dwellings while leasing their proper houses to make profit,” Mostafa said.
Solutions to the housing crisis in­clude sorting out and redefining ex­propriated land and leasing it to the dwellers or evacuating the slums and replacing them with low-cost housing for the poor.
Abdel Hussein Maalak, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s Services and Construction Commission, said there was an “urgent need” for legislation to curb slum expansion.
“Most legislation pertaining to services are theoretical and unreal­istic and thus inefficient,” he said. “The authorities have been hesitant in curbing the squatters on state land because some are covered and protected by political parties and influential groups in the country.
“Any solution should categori­cally lead to the elimination of the slums and the construction of low-cost housing for needy dwellers. The government should, as well, open the door to investment in housing projects.”
Ali Jassem Mahmadawi, head of the Services Commission at Bagh­dad Municipality, said the govern­ment was responsible for the ex­pansion of the slums.
“There are 400 slum complexes in Baghdad alone. The problem necessitates joint efforts by the rel­evant ministries and Baghdad Mu­nicipality because the expropriated lands are partly owned by minis­tries, not only by the municipality,” Mahmadawi said.
“Ministries have guards and manpower for protection that they can resort to in order to curb trans­gressions. The Oil Ministry, for in­stance, has a whole unit for the pro­tection of oil fields and is supposed to defend the land they own. The same applies to the Ministry of Fi­nance that can ask for the support of Baghdad police.”
Abdul Zahra al-Hindawi, Minis­try of Planning spokesman, point­ed out that the ministry has a plan for alleviating poverty, which he said was “the main reason for the spread of irregular housing”.
“The problem can be solved by building low-cost housing com­plexes or rehabilitating certain slums and we are cooperating with UN habitat agencies in that regard,” Hindawi said. He acknowledged, however, that money allocated from the annual budget to the rel­evant government departments was not enough to solve the hous­ing crisis.
The Iraqi Ministry of Planning es­timated it would take seven years to address the slum crisis even if sufficient funds were made avail­able.
According to the Ministry of Re­construction and Housing, millions of housing units are needed to meet demand.