Baghdad slum settlements burgeoning
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.