Year after poisoning disaster, Iraq seeks end to its water crisis

Sustainable solutions to the water crisis in Iraq have proven to be a challenge because of a lack of awareness of how everyday practices harm water quality and the environment in often irreversible ways.
Sunday 08/12/2019
Undrinkable. Water pours in Al Bida water tanks project in Basra.  (Reuters)
Undrinkable. Water pours in Al Bida water tanks project in Basra. (Reuters)

LONDON - Basra, once known as the “Venice of the Middle East” because of its freshwater canals, has been suffering acute shortages of potable water because of pollution and contamination.

Thousands of people demonstrated in Basra in the summer of 2018 after approximately 118,000 people were admitted to hospital suffering from symptoms linked to the poor water quality, including severe stomach pains and skin rashes.

Murky brownish-yellow water deemed too salty and polluted to be used for washing or drinking was being supplied to households.

Years of conflicts compounded with mismanagement of water resources, a lack of rainfall and rising temperatures because of climate change are among factors causing Iraq’s water crisis.

During the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War, soldiers fought alongside the Shatt al-Arab River, which became increasingly polluted with toxic waste — particularly ammunition — dumped into the water.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s decision to punish rebellious tribesmen by draining water from the Mesopotamian Marshes, a UNESCO world heritage site, exacerbated water problems.

Although approximately three-quarters of the marshes area has been recovered since 2003, those were put at risk once the flow of water reduced dramatically because of droughts and the Islamic State holding back water at upstream dams.

According to a 2005 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the United States, Iraq and international donors promised more than $60 billion for security, governance and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

However, there has been little evidence to indicate an improvement in water quality and sanitation services and whether water projects benefited the Iraqi people. The GAO report stated that a lack of information “may hinder the United States’ ability to gauge progress towards its goal of providing essential services.”

Reduction of funds for water projects could explain slow project delivery after funds were diverted to reinforce security.

Heightened costs of the projects and inflation in addition to poor water distribution networks may also explain hindered project delivery. For example, water that is filtered at the treatment plants may be polluted by the time it reaches consumers.

The GAO report noted that potable water and sewage mains are adjacent, allowing leaking sewage to enter water pipes.

Sustainable solutions to the water crisis in Iraq have proven to be a challenge because of a lack of awareness of how everyday practices harm water quality and the environment in often irreversible ways, said Zeina Awad, UNICEF communications chief in Iraq.

“More needs to be done to raise awareness about the importance of water conservation in a water-scarce country like Iraq. In addition, waste needs to be disposed of properly and in an environmentally safe way, and not into Iraq’s water ways,” Awad said.

She stressed the importance of increased governmental involvement in addressing the crisis.

“The Iraqi government and the authorities at the governorate level must invest more efficiently in water infrastructure, sanitation and hygiene service delivery for children and their families everywhere in Iraq. UNICEF wants to ensure that the Iraqi government and local councils are equipped with the knowledge and capacity needed to weather a future water crisis,” Awad said.

Cooperative action — especially with Iran and Turkey, whose construction of dams since the 1980s has affected water flow into the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers must be heightened. Imposing and strengthening regulations on dam construction should be first on the agenda for negotiations.

Local authorities, individuals and businesses must minimise industrial, agricultural and human waste being dumped into the rivers.

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