A new report from international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) describes last year’s hospitalization of 118,000 and associated violent protests in Basra, Iraq, as attributable to corruption and mismanagement of access to safe drinking water.
“Shortsighted politicians are citing increased rainfall as the reason they do not need to urgently deal with Basra’s persistent crisis,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, July 22. “But Basra will continue to face acute water shortages and pollution crises in the coming years, with serious consequences, if the government doesn’t invest now in targeted, long-term, and badly needed improvements.”
HRW interviewed officials in the provincial council, Ministries of Water Resources, Municipalities and Public Works, Health and Environment, and Agriculture, residents, workers at water facilities, and health care professionals. They also assessed water samples from the Shatt al-Arab River, water treatment plants and water taps in homes. Research also included academic and public health data, scientific and commercial satellite imagery of the region.
Over four million people in southern Iraq’s Basra governorate have been underserved by Iraqi authorities and the US- and UK-led Coalition Provisional Authority, HRW reports. Multiple government failures since the 1980s, including poor management of upstream water sources, inadequate regulation of pollution and sewage, and chronic neglect and mismanagement of water infrastructure, have caused the quality of local waterways to deteriorate.
Residents of Basra have had to rely on purchasing water, with cost resting most heavily on the poorer residents who, in turn, are particularly vulnerable to exposure to unsafe tap water. The situation is also difficult for farmers who have to rely on both reduced river flow and increased pollution in water for irrigation.
Upstream dams, constructed to support agricultural development (mostly in Iran), and lower rainfall in recent decades have limited water supply and higher anticipated temperatures are expected to reduce supply even further. The lack of freshwater has led to seawater intrusion: the water is no longer suitable for either irrigation or human consumption.
In looking at the 2018 crisis specifically, Human Rights Watch found some evidence of a large algal bloom along the Shatt al-Arab River that may have contributed to the Basra health crisis in the summer of 2018. But that information is not exclusive as satellite imagery also shows an accumulation of garbage along canals throughout Basra. These canals feed into the Shatt al-Arab River in central Basra city.
Basra has no desalination capacity and relying on chlorine, alone, to treat water is not fully effective. Indeed, even acquiring chlorine has been difficult as it can be used as a weapon and, therefore, its quantities are limited.
Even if water could be made potable, the distribution network is cracked and contaminated with fecal matter.
Iraq has no public health advisory system to inform residents when a community’s drinking water is, or could be, contaminated, and what steps should be taken to mitigate harm. Government engineering projects to improve water quality have failed to materialize due to mismanagement and corruption.
These combined failures HRW says, violate Basra residents’ rights to water, sanitation, health, information, and property (land and crops) guaranteed under international and national law.
The report calls for authorities in Iraq to implement a public health advisory system. Local and federal authorities should form an inter-jurisdictional independent water and environment task force to monitor the situation, coordinate action by various authorities, and consult with affected populations. It should make public the findings of reports commissioned during the 2018 health crisis and long-term plans to prevent future water crises and to respond to potential crises. It should ensure compensation for those whose livelihoods are affected.
“Access to safe drinking water is not only essential to our survival, but it is a fundamental right for everyone,” Fakih said. “While solving Basra’s water crisis will take serious planning, time, and money, it is possible to address so long as authorities take their responsibilities seriously. The alternative is deadly.”