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Drone footage taken by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Basra city in October 2018. © 2018 Norwegian Refugee Council

Basra holds more of Iraq’s oil reserves than any other governorate. By last  December, Iraq was exporting 3.726 million barrels of oil a day, generating US$6.1 billion a month in state revenue. And yet this wealth has not bought Basrawis access to even their most basic right- sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water. 

For almost 30 years Iraqi authorities have failed to provide many Iraqis with safe drinking water. This failure led to an acute water crisis in Basra last year that sent at least 118,000 people to the hospital and contributed to protests throughout the city last summer and again this summer. 

This situation is a result of complex factors that almost guarantee future crises if they are not addressed, including reduced water flow, sea water intrusion, pollution, and mismanagement of waterways. But local and federal authorities have done little to address these serious problems, with some citing high levels of rainfall this spring as an excuse to wait another year.

One of the most shocking aspects of last year’s crisis in Basra has been the lack of any official explanation about why people got sick or what the issues with the water were. The former Prime Minister’s office, Nahrain University, and the World Health Organization all sent teams to Basra to test water samples, but their reports have remained confidential. So we went to Basra in January to investigate.

We interviewed water sector and UN officials, but all they seemed to be able to tell us was that the water had been “contaminated.” But when I probed further—what exactly had been in the water that caused vomiting, diarrhea, acute stomach pain—no one could identify the pollutant. 

So we at least tried to identify the possible causes. Our team looked at the ways that government mismanagement has contributed to the contamination, and at its impact on people’s lives in Basra. We found evidence that residents, industries, and farms, in Basra, and further north, are dumping untreated waste right into the rivers and the government has not put in place robust measures to stop it.

By reviewing satellite imagery we also found evidence of at least two major oil spills in 2018 that ran into the Shatt al-Arab in central Basra city that were never publicly reported. The Shatt al-Arab , where the Euphrates and Tigris join, is the main water source for the city and its water treatment plants. This might explain why some Basrawis said their tap water had smelled like gasoline, and that they could light it on fire. The satellite imagery also showed evidence of a likely harmful algae bloom right in the center of Basra city during the crisis, something that authorities unfortunately never tested for in the water, they said.

There were also other factors, like less rainfall, most likely due to climate change, and damming upstream, including in Turkey and Iran. These factors were diminishing the rivers leading to the Shatt al-Arab, allowing more salt water to enter upstream from the Persian Gulf in the summer months. During the crisis, all that most public water treatment plants in Basra did was add some chlorine to the river water, which is not effective for getting rid of contaminants in saline water. 

Why did the authorities keep sending the contaminated water from the Shatt al-Arab to Basrawis’ homes? Because there is not enough fresh water coming to Basra from the government-built canals. One reason is that the authorities had been letting businessmen and farmers tap right into those canals and steal the water for years, before cracking down.

While  the causes of the water contamination in Basra, and even the acute crisis in 2018 are complex, the impact is painfully clear. Basra residents, long ago stopped using tap water for drinking and cooking, buying water from desalinization plants brought in by trucks. Lower income people have struggled to pay for this drinking water. 

But now Basra residents apparently risk illness from just using the water to wash their food or themselves, and the authorities have not enforced standards even for water for these purposes. 

The lack of sufficient fresh water has also cost Basra its title as the country’s biggest producer of dates. Farmers have been irrigating their farmland with the saline water from the Shatt al-Arab for many years now, killing off most of their crops and livestock as a result.

Iraqis should be asking the federal government and Basra officials why the water made them sick. They have a right to know and authorities should release the results of their investigations during the crisis. They should take steps to remedy the underlying causes of the crisis and inform the public about what steps they have taken to ensure that this does not happen again.

The government also needs to create a national public health advisory system, to warn residents if a specific contaminant is in their water or environment and advise them on how to stay safe. Iraqis should call on authorities to take their rights to water, to health, and to sanitation seriously, to fix their water supply, and to alert them when problems arise. 

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