Iraq's third-largest city, Basra, was once called “Venice of the East” due to the numerous water canals and bridges meandering throughout the entire city. This description is no longer true, as the Shatt al-Arab ("Stream of the Arabs") and its branches have become polluted with algae, bacteria, chemical toxins, and waste products from humans, hospitals and factory residuals.
On June 1, Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources announced that it has prepared a comprehensive plan to tackle the problem of salinity and environmental pollution in Basra province. The plan covers several measures, including building a dam in northern Basra to prevent river water from becoming further salinated.
Shatt al-Arab is a confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But nowadays, what is flowing into Shatt al-Arab comes mostly from the Tigris River. This is because both rivers are witnessing decreasing rainfall, high temperatures over the past couple of years and the construction of dams along the two river streams. In turn, this has lowered Shatt al-Arab's share of water and polluted it with multiple contaminates.
Despite Basrawis living in a hydrocarbon-rich province, residents since 2011 have come together on the streets and in front of government buildings to demand rights such as clean water, health care, electricity, jobs, an end to corruption, and an end to foreign interference from the United States and Iran. Clean water was and still is their major demand, but no tangible measures have been taken.
In September 2018, Basrawis took to the streets to protest the government when more than 118,000 people in Basra suffered poisoning due to contaminated water. Health authorities and the High Commission for Human Rights announced that those admitted to hospitals in 2018 were experiencing severe diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and high fever.
The water crisis has pushed many families to flee their homes and seek refuge in other places in the city where the water quality is better. Nevertheless, Iraqis still prefer to buy bottled water or to drink from private tanks. Some low-income families even buy private water and mix it with tap water to dilute it in order to minimize the water salinity.
Shukri al-Hassan, a Basra-based environmental pollution specialist, told Al-Monitor, “It became very clear to all that Basra is considered one of the most polluted cities in Iraq, and contaminated water was and still is a source for many diseases … even some cancers."
He added, “Iran has closed up the Karun River to flow into Shatt al-Arab, which contributes to increasing the water salinity and lowering the river’s level — which led the seawater to come toward Shatt al-Arab.”
“Plastic bottles, debris, and animal and human fecal material are thrown into Shatt al-Arab and other canals, playing a major role in the rise of pollution. Meanwhile, the government has done nothing to solve this issue. Thanks to God when it rained this year, which helped a bit to dilute the water. But it is still not drinkable,” Hassan said. He added, “To find a solution to the water crisis in the city, the government should import water plants with the latest technologies and impose fines against those who … pollute the water.”
“It is not Shatt al-Arab river; it is a tank of poison,” said Hassan.
Hassan continued, “What is found in Shatt al-Arab — radiation materials and depleted uranium munitions from the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988), the Gulf War (1990-91) and the US invasion (2003), as well as pollution that came from the emission of oil wells in Basra — has led to higher rates of cancer in the city."
Al-Monitor interviewed Water Resources Ministry Spokesperson Aun Thiab Abdullah, who said, “Basra is located in the far south of Iraq. This makes Basra’s water, which came from the Tigris River, prone to theft and encroachment before it reaches [Shatt al-Arab].”
"Iran closed the dam to prevent the Karun River from flowing into Shatt Al-Arab, particularly during scarcity season, while also directing the drainage water from agricultural lands toward the Karun River and then to Shatt al-Arab; this greatly impacts the southern parts of the river," said Abdullah.
“The Ministry of Water Resources continues to pay 90 cubic meters per second in the Tigris River as a share for Basra, but [less water] arrives in Basra because of encroachment by people,” said Abdullah, adding, “We are working to solve the salinity [issue] by using settling pumps to withdraw sewage water north of Basra districts and draining it to the public downstream to purify the water afterward.”
He continued, “There is a dam in the Chibayish area to separate Tigris and Euphrates waters, and only water from the Tigris River goes to Shatt al-Arab.”
Abdullah said that many dams surrounding the oil refineries have hindered water reaching Basra city properly — this is in addition to dams built by farmers that have prevented water from flowing smoothly.
“The ministry is committed to delivering clean water to people’s pipelines this summer, despite the difficulties we face as Turkey and Iran descended upon Iraq’s share. However, we are going to the negotiation table with the two neighboring countries [Iran and Turkey] to increase Iraq’s share of water,” he said.
“We are studying the construction of a dam, but we have not yet decided where it will be. Hopefully, it will help to solve Basra's water crisis," Abdullah added.
On Jan. 18, the head of Basra’s water directorate, Zuhair Jawad, told local media Al-Mirbad that Shatt al-Arab's high salinity levels would be solved.
“The Ministry of Water Resources noted to our directorate that it is still working to close the water streams that led to the increased salinity. Our directorate had previously asked the Water Resources Ministry and local government to address the problem,” Jawad said.
On April 1, 2020, Jawad told Al-Mirbad that Basrawis have to fill water tanks for their homes for any emergencies that might occur if the coronavirus curfew affects Basra's water office and delays their water plant projects.
Jabbar Ali, a 31-year-old Basra resident who spoke to Al-Monitor, said, “Since 2003, governments have offered us promises and talk but no action. We protest for our rights that governments have neglected — at least our fundamental rights like freshwater, just like any other country around the world.”
“In addition to COVID-19, the current government is COVID-20 as they did nothing in favor of the people, just in favor of themselves. The government is not able to solve the water crisis; they will not do anything. That is why we are planning to resume our protests until all our demands are met,” said Ali.
“The tap water that reaches my house is dangerous to human life, so we are buying water from private water tanks. But for how long must we pay money to get clear water that the government is responsible for providing us?” Ali asked.
Iraqis are looking forward to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's newly formed government and wonder whether he can achieve what others before him could not despite the challenges he faces like foreign interference and the coronavirus pandemic.