Basra’s water woes reflect lack of political will

The apportionment of blame is evidence of the absence of political will to ease the crisis or heed legitimate demands of the people.
Sunday 30/09/2018
A view of a water stream in the Iraqi city of Basra. (Mohammad Dylan)
Poisonous politics. A view of a water stream in the Iraqi city of Basra. (Mohammad Dylan)

To global spectators, anger-fuelled protests in Iraq have become a seasonal activity but grievances, as the latest uprising in Basra showed, are about more than the state’s inability to govern the resource-abundant country.

Water pollution and environmental toxicity have rendered Iraq’s second largest city of Basra uninhabitable and, coupled with the systematic looting of state public wealth, ignited civil unrest in June.

Protests that have claimed at least 27 civilian lives mark the confluence of political and environmental degradation in a province that typifies everything wrong about post-2003 Iraq.

Symbolic attacks on government installations, political offices, the Iranian Consulate and the obstruction of roads leading into oil fields in recent weeks are but part of the story of Basra’s protracted suffering.

Protests were largely met with disproportionate force. One protester, who did not wish to be identified, spoke of hordes of militiamen donning official uniforms shooting live ammunition. “At the beginning, shots were fired sporadically, never directly aimed at civilians. Now shootings are targeted,” he said, describing a climate of terror that has seen thousands of protesters abandon the streets.

As expressions of dissent make headlines, more apparent to inhabitants is the vast number of people admitted to hospitals with mild to extreme cases of water poisoning. At the end of August, the figure of those under care stood at 17,000 but has since risen to 65,000, widening the stage for greater political in-fighting. Members of the local Al Hussein football club were hospitalised and treated for cases of severe poisoning, forcing them to cancel an eagerly anticipated match, Al-Mirbad reported.

The apportionment of blame is evidence of the absence of political will to ease the crisis or heed legitimate demands of the people. During a recent parliamentary session, the blame game that ensued between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Basra Governor Asaad al-Eidani descended into a verbal sparring match in which neither man took political responsibility for the problems.

Abadi’s firm rhetoric in condemnation against what he described as “acts of vandalism” has done little to prevent his popularity from plummeting. Basra’s latest outburst has been interpreted as a crushing defeat for Abadi, quashing his chances of re-election. Abadi recently conceded defeat but blamed “a negligent” local government.

Abadi’s shortcomings, as illuminated by the crisis in Basra, emboldened critics from al-Sadr Sairoon and pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance, both of which called on Abadi to step down as the caretaker prime minister. Analysts said the two sides are looking to push Abadi out, forming a rival coalition.

However, these pitfalls and promises illuminate the political instrumentalisation of Iraq’s crisis — whether political or environmental — that has been used to evade reform and outsource inherently governmental functions to foreign firms.

“I wish others could travel to Basra and see with their very eyes the levels of salt contaminating our water supply,” said another protester who did not wish to be identified. “The water crisis is not simply an environmental catastrophe. It’s a political problem first” that “a manifestly corrupt elite has shown no desire or ability to cure.”

Official visits by Iraq’s health minister and Eidani concluded that the cases of pollution they have treated reflect “only minor cases of water contamination.” However, the 65,000 who have been treated for illnesses may reach an opposite conclusion.

The Pioneer Pharmaceutical Company, a local firm, sent nine aid convoys with medical supplies and drugs, to relieve the pressures felt by Basra’s Directorate of Health.

Social media outlets were awash with videos in which water faucets are seen discharging muddy and milky water, turned colour because of an exceedingly high salt content.

Field assessments conducted by UNICEF said the city’s sewage network was compromised by “depleted and outdated material such as asbestos.” Previous studies showed a rise in salt and fecal content, owing to the absence of clean-up operations of the province’s water supplies.

Despite the oil wealth Basra boasts, available treatment technologies are no longer affordable in the absence of international support and after 15 years of unremitting plunder. Their ability to treat present levels of toxicity is questionable.

Not only does the city lack electric power for water purification and sewage treatment plants but the absence of political will denies inhabitants of the oil-rich town and could see humanitarian needs of Basra deferred for years.