For almost 30 years, including during the period of occupation by the US- and UK-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraqi authorities have failed to properly manage and regulate Iraq’s water resources, depriving the people in Iraq’s southern Basra governorate—a population of roughly 4 million—of their right to safe drinking water. Basra’s primary water sources are the Shatt al-Arab river and its freshwater canals. But multiple government failures since the 1980s, including poor management of upstream sources, inadequate regulation of pollution and sewage, and chronic neglect and mismanagement of water infrastructure, have caused the quality of these waterways to deteriorate.
While the degradation of Basra’s water sources has been a persistent problem for decades, it became a full-blown crisis in the summer of 2018, when at least 118,000 people were hospitalized due to symptoms doctors identified as related to water quality. In August, hundreds of people began pouring into Basra’s hospitals suffering from rashes, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, overwhelming their staff and available stocks of medicine. By August 16, the Basra Health Directorate identified water contamination as a likely cause, and its director, Riyad Abd al-Amir, called on people to boil all water before drinking or cooking with it.
The following week, the Iraqi Ministry of Health denied the existence of a serious epidemic of cholera or other diseases due to water contamination in Basra governorate, even as hundreds of people continued to be hospitalized each day. On August 26, hundreds of residents stormed the Basra Health Directorate to protest the poor health services provided to those who had fallen ill. On September 29, the head of the office of the Independent High Commission for Human Rights in Basra, Mehdi Al-Tamimi, stated that the number of cases had reached 100,000, with heath authorities registering at least 118,000 cases by November 2018. While experts disagree on the exact cause of the illness, they all agree that it was related to poor water quality.
Linked to the crisis, according to the United Nations, almost 4,000 individuals had to leave their homes in August 2018, likely because they did not have access to enough potable water, though the causal link has yet to be clearly demonstrated.
That year, the water flowing to the Shatt al-Arab and its canals from rivers upstream decreased, resulting in elevated levels of sewage, agricultural, industrial pollution, and salinity in the water. Some experts believe that the health crisis was sparked by an algal bloom created due to these conditions.
The 2018 crisis was preceded by similar water-related health crises in 2009 and 2015, yet after all these crises local and federal authorities failed to properly address the underlying causes or establish procedures to protect residents before a new crisis arose. For example, during the 2018 crisis authorities did not adequately alert residents regarding the poor water quality and still have not published any official investigations into the cause of the health crisis.
Moreover, authorities continue to allow, or turn a blind eye to, activities that pollute Basra’s water resources and lead to a decline in water flows despite the health and financial risks to residents. In February 2019, likely as a result of the 2018 crisis, the Ministry of Health and Environment started posting online weekly reports on the water quality in the Tigris, Euphrates, and Shatt al-Arab. These frequently show the water quality index, which is based on a range of parameters including salinity levels, phosphates, pH levels and other markers, in parts of the rivers, falling below 50 points, well below the acceptable water quality rating.
Compounding the problem, promised government projects to improve water quality have failed to materialize due to mismanagement and corruption. Authorities have also failed to provide residents with adequate information to protect themselves in the event of a future crisis, which experts say is inevitable. These combined failures violate Basra residents’ right to water, sanitation, health, information, a healthy environment and property (land and crops) guaranteed under international law as well as national law.
The high cost of water, especially during the crisis, fell hardest on poorer residents and made them particularly vulnerable to unsafe tap water. An estimated 338,400 residents of Basra live in informal housing spread throughout the governorate that is excluded from the formal water and sanitation network, making them among the most water-insecure in the governorate. As a result, some resort to tapping illegally into the water network if there are pipes that run under their homes. This community, and other poorer and marginalized groups in Basra, were particularly acutely affected by the crisis. In order to uphold the right to water states are obliged to work towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation for all, without discrimination, while prioritizing those most in need.
Lack of Information during the 2018 Health Crisis
Authorities failed to promptly or adequately warn residents during the 2018 crisis of the effects of contaminated water and how to avoid harm or to properly investigate incoming cases to try to assess the possible causes of the illness. They also still have not communicated publicly the cause of the water-related illnesses.
Test results from water samples taken by authorities during the 2018 summer crisis along the Shatt al-Arab, and in treatment plants, including in partnership with a Baghdad university, have not been made public. Nor have reports produced by the university or the World Health Organization in the wake of the crisis. Federal and local authorities all told Human Rights Watch that the results and reports are confidential.
Beyond one inconclusive press release from the Basra governor’s office, no official information about the causes of the health crisis has been published. Iraqis have been left in the dark as to what steps authorities have taken to prevent another water-related health crisis or will take to minimize harm if a similar crisis repeats itself.
One significant gap in Iraq’s regulatory regime is the total absence of a public health advisory or directive system that would allow authorities to inform residents when a community's drinking water is, or could be, contaminated, what steps should be taken to mitigate harm, and what protocols are in place for government officials to respond to advisories and to lift them. No such system has been implemented since the 2018 crisis.
The 2018 health crisis is a reflection of multiple failures by authorities to protect Basra’s water sources or mitigate the impact of their deteriorating quality on residents. Local and federal authorities do not properly implement and enforce Iraq’s robust regulatory framework prohibiting public and private entities from dumping untreated waste into any of the country’s waterways beyond rates that are allowed by the Ministry of Health. As a result, waterways including the Shatt al-Arab are replete with contaminants from human, animal, industrial, and agricultural waste. The conventional water treatment plants in Basra are not adequately removing the contaminants or testing the water quality, and in some cases are even failing to add enough chlorine during treatment.
Over the decades, as the state has failed to provide residents with adequate safe fresh water, a private water sector has proliferated. But authorities in Basra have failed to provide adequate oversight of this private sector. For example, until very recently they have not been ensuring that private reverse osmosis (RO) desalination and filtering plants and water truckers are licensed and are abiding by local and international standards to ensure proper water treatment.
Authorities have also failed to ensure that all residents are connected to the water and sewage network. This has encouraged families excluded from the network to illegally tap into it. Despite water crises in Basra in 2009 and 2015, until the 2018 crisis, authorities failed to take any serious action to crack down on this illegal water tapping. For years, farmers and businesses were tapping into the freshwater canals, which have no cover enclosing the water. Authorities did not take significant enough measures to repair damage to the piping delivery network to minimize leakage and contamination and to prevent private individuals and businesses from illegally tapping into the network. It was only after the 2018 crisis that the authorities mustered the political will to take measures to stop this practice.
In addition, authorities have severely mismanaged Iraq’s water resources so that rivers and freshwater canals are not delivering adequate quantities of water of sufficient quality to the governorate’s public treatment plants. Over 300,000 Basra governorate residents are not connected to the water and sewage network, leading these communities to contaminate groundwater with raw sewage and to illegally tap into the piping network to access water, exposing the systems to wastage and revenue loss, decreased water pressure, and potential contamination. Corruption within local businesses and governmental institutions has also prevented engineering solutions from being completed on time.
Dr. Shukri al-Hassan, a marine science lecturer at Basra University, told Human Rights Watch that the water crisis of 2018 was the culmination of years of mismanagement, during which authorities had ignored clear realities and their own responsibilities:
This crisis proved that the government is weak and riddled with mismanagement of public service. This is why the crisis lasted for over three months. Each official was taking decisions merely to exculpate themselves, and [there was] an unwillingness to ask the international community for help and bring in the requisite experts in order to protect the people of Basra. This is why there were so many victims, and of course it is the poorest that suffer. Shame on the government.
Basra’s public water plants are not equipped with the technology needed to remove dissolved constituents from seawater intrusion from the Shatt al-Arab. These constituents make chlorine, a chemical commonly used to treat water, less effective at removing harmful substances. Moreover, experts say that water authorities have struggled to obtain adequate quantities of chlorine due to strict controls aimed at preventing the chemical from falling into the hands of groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) that have used it as a weapon. As a result, some public plants have been unable to add enough chlorine to the water supply to make it safe, the experts said.
In addition, by reviewing satellite imagery from July 15, Human Rights discovered a likely oil spill in the Shatt al-Arab that was visible on that date, having started perhaps days earlier near an oil and gas field around 25 kilometers upstream from Basra city. The spill, which appears to span 24 kilometers along the river on July 15, was never reported either by government officials or the media, and none of the water sector workers Human Rights Watch interviewed for the report disclosed it, indicating they may not have known about it.
Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch also identified another likely oil spill into a canal in central Basra from October 28 to 29, 2018 next to a gasoline station that drifted approximately 200 meters east towards the Shatt al-Arab. This incident also went unreported at the time. Two unidentified pipelines along canals in central Basra city were also periodically releasing what researchers suspect were large volumes of waste liquid into the canal from July to October 2018. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch also shows that an accumulation of garbage started building up along canals throughout Basra that feed into the Shatt al-Arab in the center of Basra city from March 2018 to February 2019.
The crisis has been worsened by reduced flow rates in the rivers due to upstream damming linked to sugar plantations and other agricultural development, particularly in Iran, and lower rainfall in recent decades, likely a result of climate change, without adequate policies in place to mitigate impact. It has also been exacerbated by unsustainable water use in agriculture and for domestic purposes.
Agricultural, Health Impact
Agriculture is the main source of income for rural communities in Basra governate. However, over the last decade farmers have lost use of much of their land due both to irrigation with saline water that damages soil and kills plants and to upstream developments that have stopped winter floods from flushing out salts in the soils into the Persian Gulf. Crop production across the governorate has reduced substantially since the 1980s.
Not long ago, agriculture—dates in the south, wheat, barley and vegetables in the north—was a major source of livelihood for over 70 percent of rural communities and the largest source of rural employment. However, that has changed over the last decade as Basrawis have had access to less fresh water. In the 1970s, Iraq produced over 1 million tons of dates annually; exports from Basra alone reached 130,000 tons per year. About 87 percent of Basra’s agricultural land has since been all or partially lost because of seawater intrusion.
Basra is not the only governorate being affected in this way. According to the UN Environment Program, Iraq is currently losing around 25,000 hectares of arable land annually, mostly in the south, and desertification is also on the rise. Climate change results in temperature increases leading to increased evaporation, declining precipitation, and changing weather patterns that contribute to water shortages. While some farmers received compensation for their losses during previous crises in 2009 and 2015, farmers affected by the 2018 crisis have said they have yet to receive compensation for their losses.
The contaminated water has also affected people’s health, most dramatically when at least 118,000 people were hospitalized during the summer of 2018. Human Rights Watch consulted numerous Iraqi and international water quality experts and doctors, sharing with them data from water samples tested during the crisis. Researchers obtained the samples from a range of different sources. While the experts had different theories on what may have sparked the disease outbreak during that period, they all agreed that it was most likely that contaminated water was the cause.
Human Rights Watch has found evidence of a large algal bloom along the Shatt al-Arab in the middle of the city of Basra that may have been related to the disease outbreak. The algal bloom appears to have been present in the river as early as March 2018 until as late as November 2018. It is clearly visible by September 2018, the same month a professor of hydrology and marine sciences at Basra University identified a brown colored mass coming from a side canal into the Shatt al-Arab in central Basra, which he suspected was an algal bloom. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows the colored mass in the water. The mass looked characteristic of an algal bloom according to international water quality experts who reviewed the imagery, including one who is a leading expert on harmful algal blooms.
Organic material including human and animal sewage, garbage, runoff of soil contaminated with agricultural fertilizers, and oil residues encourage algal growth. Higher temperatures resulting from climate change also increase the likelihood of harmful algal bloom. Laboratories that tested water samples at the time of the crisis never tested for harmful algae either because of lack of equipment or because they did not recognize its potential presence. Other possible causes include viruses (such as norovirus), parasites (giardia or cryptosporidium), bacteria (E. coli), and toxic metals from sewage and agricultural and industrial pollution. The high salinity of the water may also have contributed to the outbreak, according to experts involved in water sample testing during the crisis.
The Way Forward
Facing a water crisis that is largely unaddressed, and almost certain to get worse, local and federal authorities should implement Iraq’s obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to water. The obligation to respect requires states to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of the right to water. For example, states should refrain from polluting water resources or arbitrarily and illegally disconnecting water and sanitation services.
The obligation to protect requires states to prevent third parties from interfering with the right to water. States should adopt and enforce legislation to ensure that private actors—such as private water purification or reverse osmosis (RO) plants and water truckers—comply with human rights standards related to the right to water.
The obligation to fulfil requires states to adopt appropriate legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial, promotional, and other measures to fully realize the right to water. States must, among other things, adopt a national policy on water that: gives priority in water management to essential personal and domestic uses; defines the objectives for the extension of water services, with a focus on disadvantaged and marginalized groups; considers the current and projected impacts of climate change on its planning; identifies the resources available to meet these goals; specifies the most cost-effective way of using them; outlines the responsibilities and timeframe for implementing the measures; monitors results and outcomes, including ensuring adequate remedies for violations.
In line with these obligations, and given the complexity of the issue facing Basra, local and federal authorities should form an inter-jurisdictional independent water and environment task force vested with the authority and obligation to monitor the ongoing situation, coordinate action by different authorities, and consult with impacted populations in order to address Iraq’s water crisis in a strategic, long-term, and sustainable manner.
As a first step, the task force should make public the findings of reports authorities commissioned during the 2018 health crisis and make public long-term plans to prevent future water crises and short-term plans to respond to a potential crisis this summer with adequate medical and other mitigation measures. It should ensure compensation for those affected by the impacts of the crisis on their livelihoods, particularly farmers who lost their livelihoods.
The task force should develop a strategy that clearly outlines which authorities are responsible for cracking down on illegal dumping of pollutants into Iraq’s waterways, illegal water tapping, and registering, testing, and sanctioning private water plants and water truckers. Baghdad authorities should hold accountable local officials who do not fulfill their responsibilities.
A team of experts, including international experts, should conduct a thorough study of the water problems in southern Iraq, including an assessment of water requirements and of the quality and quantity of water available, before major engineering projects begin. The study should also survey the state of the public treatment plants and of the delivery network in order to develop a strategy to address the crisis. At the same time, the task force should launch a national strategy to educate the public to more responsibly use water in order to reduce consumption. Accountability should be at the core of any strategy, so that there are clear quasi-judicial and judicial mechanisms where both state regulators and individuals may seek enforcement of regulations and the core content of the right to water. For example, clear complaint mechanisms should be developed at the local level for individuals to file complaints, reserving judicial avenues for individuals should local mechanisms be exhausted.
Iraqi local and federal authorities should ensure that all residents have effective access to information about water quality, and that those without access to adequate safe water have an effective remedy against those responsible. Such remedies should include urgent action when access to potable water and sanitation is cut off.
For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 58 Basra residents, 46 of whom fell ill during 2018 because of the water crisis or had relatives who fell ill, and five who lost their livelihoods because of the water crisis. Interviewees also include one private reverse osmosis (RO) plant owner, one operator of a private desalination plant, three operators of public plants, two private water truckers, four healthcare professionals, and seven individuals who conducted tests of water samples from the Shatt al-Arab, treatment plants, and taps in homes. Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives from Basra’s provincial council, governor’s office, the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works’ water and sewage departments, Ministry of Health and Environment, and the Ministry of Agriculture.
Researchers reviewed numerous reports written by governmental and nongovernmental organizations on the crisis. Some of these reports included quantitative data and results of sample testing. Researchers also consulted with eight international water quality and engineering experts.
Human Rights Watch researchers spoke to interviewees in person when possible, but in some cases did so over the telephone or via email, in Arabic or English. Researchers informed all interviewees about the purpose and voluntary nature of the interviews, the ways in which they would use the information, and obtained consent from all interviewees, who understood they would receive no compensation for their participation. For reasons of personal security, Human Rights Watch has withheld the names of a few of the interviewees.
Human Rights Watch analyzed over twenty years of scientific and commercial satellite imagery of the region to critically evaluate changes in land and water use practices potentially related to the water crisis. This included a detailed review of local changes in commercial farming and industrial water consumption, as well as the construction of dams, reservoirs, and canals in Iran and Turkey within the catchment basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Human Rights Watch reviewed environmental and hydrological datasets produced by the European and United States space agencies (ESA and NASA) to assess regional changes in river flow, lake levels, and vegetation cover. Human Rights Watch also used satellite imagery to identify suspected illegal water diversion schemes, a possible harmful algal bloom, oil spills, to monitor changes in municipal waste levels in the Basra canal network, and to verify the location and approximate date of relevant videos shared on social media.
Researchers submitted written questions to Iraq’s independent Integrity Commission in January 2019 but received no substantive response. In addition, on April 18, Human Rights Watch sent the Government of Iraq a list of questions based on its research. Baghdad authorities provided no response. Human Rights Watch maintains a dialogue with the Iraqi federal government and is grateful for the cooperation we received to assess the facts presented in this report and any resulting recommendations.
Basra Governorate is located in southern Iraq, bordering Kuwait to the south and Iran to the east and has a population of roughly four million, according to its provincial council. The majority of the population is Shia, with Sunni and small Christian minorities. Basra holds a significant amount of Iraq’s oil reserves, which account for around 95 percent of Iraq’s state revenue at current production rates. In December 2018, Iraq was exporting 3.726 million barrels of oil a day, generating US$6.1 billion in December alone.
Basra governorate was once the country’s biggest producer of dates, wheat, barley, and rice. Despite being resource-rich, Basra suffers from chronic unemployment and underemployment and poverty, as well as poor public services and decaying infrastructure, which many believe has been fueled by poor governance and corruption.
For decades, including during the period of occupation by the US- and UK-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Basra residents have suffered from the absence of safe tap water. The Shatt al-Arab, a river flowing from where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, is the primary source of surface water for the region. However, a combination of a decrease in the Shatt al-Arab’s flow, causing a spike in water’s salinity, and unchecked pollution, has forced Basra’s residents to purchase water for drinking and cooking, threatened farmers’ livelihoods, and has led to at least three public health crises.
Policies and practices of Iraqi authorities since the 1980s have been the principle cause of the degradation in the Shatt al-Arab’s water quality, but there are also other factors that contribute to a decrease in its flow, including damming upriver, irrigation, and climate change. Damming projects in Iran, Syria, and Turkey have impacted waterflow into the Tigris and Euphrates since the 1980s. At the same time, local authorities, individuals and businesses have been dumping significantly more industrial, agricultural and human waste into the rivers.
Compounding this, parts of the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988 and the Gulf War from 1990-1991 were fought along the Shatt al-Arab, leaving damage behind and toxic waste (including munitions) in the water.  In the 1990s, sanctions imposed on Iraq left the country without the resources to invest in rebuilding Basra’s infrastructure.
Also in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein launched a campaign to drain the marshlands located west of Basra city to punish the local community for harboring Shia opposition figures.  At the time, the wetlands were Basra’s main source of fresh water.  Over the years, because of this and factors mentioned above, the Shatt al-Arab’s water continued to deteriorate in quantity and quality. The government had initially planned to construct a pipeline to pump water from Kut’s al-Gharraf river, through Nasriya straight to Basra, but because of the budgetary impacts of the Gulf War, the government decided to save money and instead of a pipeline, constructed the 240-kilometer-long Bada’a open canal, known as the Sweet Water Canal, to bring the Tigris’s fresh water to Basra to provide the city with tap water.
Two of Iraq’s largest marshes, the Central and Hammar marshes rely mostly on the Euphrates for replenishment. Because of encroachment of sea water up into the Shatt al-Arab, in 2014, the Ministry of Water Resources built a dam along the Euphrates, between the Central and Hammar marshes and before the beginning of the Shatt al-Arab to prevent that sea water from entering the Euphrates. Over the last decade the quantity of water in the Euphrates has diminished to the point that it is barely able to sustain the marshes at half the size they once were.  The dam project on the Euphrates, which has been successful at retaining much of that water in the marshes, has had a considerable effect on reducing the amount of water flowing from the marshes down the Euphrates, into the Shatt al-Arab.
All 58 Basra residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report said that they and other Basra residents have not been able to drink or cook with tap water since the 1980s because of concerns around pollution and water salinity levels, only using the water to wash their dishes, themselves, and fruits and vegetables. To cope, every family, no matter how impoverished, buys either water that has been desalinated and filtered by reverse osmosis (filtered water), delivered by water truck, and stored in personal tanks or containers, or bottled mineral water for cooking and drinking, they all said. As a result, the Norwegian Refugee Council found in 2018 that residents spend a minimum of $60 per household every month on purchasing filtered water and another $60 to $80 per month for water that is clean enough for personal hygiene, laundry, and other non-potable uses. An aid organization conducted a study in 2018 which found that the median total monthly household income at the national level for non-displaced families was IQD 490,000 ($410). The report also stated that the primary source of water for the majority of households in the south was through purchasing it from a shop, rather than having access to it through a public network.
Exacerbating matters, Basra and other parts of southern Iraq began facing extreme water shortage crises starting in 2009, likely exacerbated by the impacts of climate change on temperatures and rainfall patterns.
Water shortages became acute again in 2015 and returned in 2017 when the Islamic State’s (ISIS) control of areas along the Euphrates river in Syria contributed to less water flowing across the border into Iraq. After ISIS gained control of that part of the river, low levels of rain and snowfall in the winter of 2017-2018 contributed to an extreme water crisis, making thousands of Basra residents sick and destroying agricultural lands in summer 2018.
As a result of worsening access to clean water among other grievances, during the summer of 2018, Basra residents began demonstrating in large numbers against poor service provision and political corruption. Authorities responded by shutting down internet and social media in Iraq, using excessive force against protestors, killing at least nine, injuring hundreds, and conducting arbitrary arrests, before ultimately releasing protestors without charge.
Because of the lessening water from upstream into the Shatt al-Arab, the river has over time seen significant seawater intrusion, particularly in the summer months. One of the most common recommendations from Basra authorities to address the incursion is the construction of a dam south of Basra on the Shatt al-Arab preventing the intrusion of sea water (often referred to as Abu Fluss Dam proposal), which could include a lock to allow vessels to pass through.
However international experts Human Rights Watch consulted with have all cautioned against the proposal. One international water expert working in Iraq told Human Rights Watch that damming up an estuary would have major ecological and navigation impacts and should be avoided. He warned that the dam might trigger the sea to even more aggressively eat away at the shoreline, speeding up the effects of the current rise in the sea level.
Experts pointed out that because of the lack of controls on the dumping of sewage and industrial and agricultural pollution upstream, the dam would likely end up trapping stagnant and highly contaminated water behind its walls. In addition, current tidal waves in the river help to flush the large amounts of solid waste that residents dump into the canals that feed into the Shatt al-Arab.
The ebb and tide of the water coming into the Shatt al-Arab moves in two directions also complicating matters. The experts said they knew of no other example in the world where a dam was built on an estuary with the aim of preventing seawater intrusion.
For almost 30 years, Iraqi authorities have failed to ensure that Basra receives water of adequate quality and quantity. The reduced quantity in water coming from upstream has led to sea water from the Persian Gulf intruding into the Shatt al-Arab, the river on which Basra sits. At the same time, the water coming from upstream has become more and more polluted including with contaminants that conventional treatment plants are unable to remove. As a result, Basra residents have not been able to drink or cook with tap water for decades because of concerns around pollution and water salinity levels, only using the water to wash their dishes, themselves, and fruits and vegetables. Farmers have had to irrigate their lands with saline river water, damaging their crops.
Iraq’s inability to properly manage its water resources and water treatment, enforce anti-pollution regulations and provide residents of Basra governorate with safe drinking water has had an impact on a range of their rights, as became acutely clear during the 2018 crisis. The ongoing decades of water mismanagement have impacted residents’ rights to water, sanitation, health, property, and education. The 2018 crisis also may have triggered displacement, though the link between water and displacement in Iraq requires further study.
As a result of the lack of adequate water flowing from the Euphrates and Tigris into the Shatt al-Arab waterway, tests show at least a threefold increase in salt concentration in Iraq’s main rivers over the past half century, resulting in severely brackish river water. This is a result of irrigation of highly intensive agriculture upstream in Iraq as well as evaporation. In addition, the lack of sufficient river water has led to the backflow of sea water into the Shatt al-Arab, further increasing total dissolved solids (TDS) levels. This is further discussed later in the report. This is having a significant impact on people’s abilities to remain and farm in their areas of origin.
Livelihoods: Farming, Raising Livestock, and Fisheries
Declining water quality and water shortages have had a substantial impact on the agricultural sector in the governorate of Basra. Not long ago, agriculture—dates in the south, wheat, barley and vegetables in the north—was a major source of livelihood for over 70 percent of rural communities and the largest source of rural employment. However, that has changed over the last decade, as Basrawis have had access to less fresh water. Partly as a result, over the years much of the rural population has resettled in Basra city.
Agriculture in Basra depends heavily on irrigation from rivers and wetlands, as Basra generally receives insufficient rainfall. Dr. Mohsen Disher, a professor in Agricultural Sciences at Basra University, said that over the years, because of the salinity in the water being used for irrigation, salt had accumulated in the soil. This has led to plant death, low crop yields, and long-term effects on the sustainability of farmlands for future use.
Disher said that the most significant sign of the seawater intrusion was the death of Basra’s date trees. In the 1970s, Iraq produced over 1 million tons of dates annually, and annual exports from Basra alone reached 130,000 tons. He estimated that 87 percent of Basra’s agricultural land has been all or partially lost due to seawater intrusion. Most agricultural activities have now stopped in Basra.
Jaafar Sabah, a farmer from Abu al-Khasib, a poor town to the southeast of Basra, said that over the last five years the land showed signs each year of the increased salinity.
Each year I was getting 50 percent of the yield of the year before, and then in 2018, almost nothing survived. In 2018, the salinity level in the water was so high that I could grab the salt from the water with my own hands. I am dying of thirst and so are my children. There were four cases of poisoning in my family. I have no money and I cannot take them to the hospital. Where do I get the money from?
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, farmers in Basra were using 38,607 hectares to grow their crops in the winter of 2008-2009 and 11,393 hectares in the summer of 2008. A decade later, in the winter of 2017-2018, it had dropped to 16,386 hectares and in the summer of 2018 was at 3,237 hectares.
The water quality has also impacted the livelihoods of those raising livestock by leading to the death of most cattle and water buffalo. In addition, farmers traditionally used wheat residues as animal feed, but saline water disrupted wheat production, making animal feed scarce and more costly.
When asked about these developments, Ammar Salman Abd al-Hussain, the director of the Basra Agriculture Department, said that the ministry had no program to track animal deaths related to the water crisis.
Mehdi Abd al-Sayad Hamza, a farmer from an area called Salhiya, said that on his 1.5 hectares of land he used to grow dozens of crops, and before the 2018 water crisis had six cows, 20 chickens, 40 sheep, and a fish farm with 10,000 fish. He used river water to maintain his land and livestock. At the beginning of the crisis his plants started dying, and within a month he had none left. He said that 14 chickens, 20 sheep and all his fish died, with the fish bleeding out from their eyes. He said his cows survived but were in bad health.
Jassim Muhammad, a farmer from the town of Siba, has 0.24 hectares on which he used to have 40 date-producing palm trees, grapes and several other fruit varieties, and six cows. He estimates that he suffered about IQD 6 million ($5,000) in losses in 2018,
All my cows have gotten very sick, and my grapevines and fruit trees all died. My palm trees have been damaged to the point that the dates they produced after the crisis were so inedible that I had to throw them all out.
He said that during the crisis he was buying 1 m3/day of trucked, treated water for his family and cows, because the cows could no longer drink river water. “The only way we survived is by using my army pension, and all that money just went towards basic survival, leaving nothing to reinvest into the land,” he said.
Abd al-Raheem Abd al-Kareem Abd al-Waheed is a farmer from al-Fayhaa, an area 10 kilometers south of Basra city. He has 0.5 hectares on which he used to grow numerous herbs, flowers, and date-producing palm trees. He said,
I used to have 50 palm trees, and over the years they would suffer over the summer but would recover by the winter. During the crisis last year 41 of them died, so I am only left with nine. And the dates those nine produced were inedible so I had to throw them all away.
Because of the agricultural impacts in Basra, there is now a high volume of imported agricultural produce from Iran on sale in Basra’s markets which traders estimate consist of over 80 percent of the goods on sale.
While the Basra Agriculture Department carried out assessments of farmers losses and said they compensated them accordingly after the 2009 crisis and a Ministry of Agriculture employee in Basra said that farmers in Siba and Abu al-Khasib had been compensated for the 2018 crisis, Muhammad and another Siba farmer said that in November 2018, a committee came to assess their losses but that as of January 2019 they had yet to find out if they would be receiving any compensation.
The water crisis’s detrimental impact on property has resulted in tensions and violence between residents. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, Basra residents in September reported localized violence over resources and land-pasture rights for livestock. In one case, displaced persons reported that their water buffalo were shot at by host community members for grazing in areas farmed by residents. There were also anecdotal reports of armed violence between different communities over the same issues.
The lack of water and livelihoods may have also led to displacement in Basra. While Basra authorities had no estimates to share, according to the UN, almost 4,000 individuals had to leave their homes in August 2018 because they did not have access to adequate amounts of potable water. By January 2019, there were still 208 families displaced from Basra likely because of poor or no access to water, living mostly in other southern governorates.
The Danish Refugee Council, which has been supporting families displaced from the south, is concerned that these families are unable to enroll their children into school because they do not have residency cards for their new areas, do not receive government assistance for internally displaced families because they are not registered with the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, and are often living in non-permanent, and often informal, settings without fixed employment.
Organic material including human and animal sewage, garbage, runoff of soil contaminated with agricultural fertilizers, oil residues, and other forms of waste are contaminating Basra’s waterways. The conventional public water treatment plants are unable to treat for all the contaminants in the water, and in some instances are failing to properly treat contaminants that they could neutralize, because of a lack of adequate chlorine usage. This is further discussed later in the report. This has had an impact on the health of Basra’s residents.
The health impact of the water crisis in Basra was seen most acutely in the summer of 2018. A healthcare worker in Basra who was supporting Basra’s hospitals said that between August 12, the day the authorities declared an ongoing crisis, and November, the Ministry of Health registered 118,000 individuals as having fallen sick “because of the water,” with some hospitals receiving up to 3,000 patients a day during the peak of the crisis.
A health-sector employee from Abu al-Khasib who works at one of the two local hospitals said that during the crisis, his hospital treated over 3,000 patients. “People came in with diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. All we could do was treat the symptoms because we didn’t know exactly why they were getting sick.” A health-sector employee working as a first responder at a hospital in Abu al-Khasib for 16 days during the crisis said:
We had 500 to 700 patients coming in every day at the height of the crisis. We had no time to properly examine or diagnose them. All we could do is give them injections of medication to reduce their stomach pain, put them on saline solution to deal with the dehydration, and give them medication to reduce their nausea.
The healthcare worker in Basra and residents who fell sick, told Human Rights Watch that they were discharged from the hospital within six hours, once cholera had been ruled out and they had received some treatment for the nausea and diarrhea, with full recovery occurring generally within three to four days.
Dr. Shukri al-Hassan, a marine science lecturer at Basra University, and the independent healthcare expert said that the actual number of those who became ill is likely much higher, as the official number is the number of those who went to government-run facilities. It does not include those who went to private clinics or those who never made it to the hospital. Furthermore the 118,000 number only includes those whom the ministry registered from August 12 onwards. The expert said he thought the real number was closer to 130,000 victims. Many interviewees highlighted that people started falling sick well before August 12, and some said they were still falling ill in January 2019.
The Ministry of Health did not specify the cause of sickness in any of the cases beyond testing patients’ stool to rule out cholera, which they were able to do in all instances. The Basra healthcare worker said that the hospitals’ working assumption was that the tap water people were receiving from the Shatt al-Arab was contaminated by a range of pollutants and excessive levels of salinity. While they were not drinking the water, he said patients were telling doctors they used the tap water to wash themselves, their dishes, and their fruits and vegetables.
An independent healthcare expert said that many of the cases were clustered around the public treatment plants that draw most of their water from the Shatt al-Arab rather than from the Bada’a canal, a canal bringing fresh water to Basra from higher up along the Tigris river, via the RZero pumping station. He said that they observed that some neighborhoods receive water from two separate plants, and in those cases, the streets receiving water via a plant relying on the Bada’a canal via RZero showed much lower signs of illness than the streets relying on a plant mostly sending treated water it drew from the Shatt al-Arab. He pointed out that areas like Zubair, Siba, and al-Faw which are towns south of Basra, had much lower rates of illness because they rely on the Bada’a canal and the Ktaiban canal, a freshwater irrigation canal that starts higher up in the Shatt al-Arab.
Data reviewed by Human Rights Watch on the number of patients received by different hospitals between August 12 and October 28 show that the seven hospitals located in neighborhoods receiving water from treatment plants relying more heavily on the Shatt al-Arab saw 10.2 times as many patients coming in as the five hospitals in the neighborhoods receiving treatment plants relying more heavily on the freshwater canal. The twelve hospitals received a total of over 109,000 patients during that period.
The Abu al-Khasib health sector employee said that staff at the hospital he was working at took urine and stool samples from patients, but that as far as he knew, the Ministry of Health only tested the samples for signs of cholera. He was unaware of what other tests the ministry might have done. International water specialist Ed Brown, Professor Emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa, said that given the symptoms, once cholera and other intestinal bacterial and parasitic pathogens were ruled out, hospitals should have been testing for viruses.
In fact, in October 2018, al-Qadisiyah governorate, 300 kilometers northwest of Basra, saw Hepatitis A and E outbreaks due to water contamination, highlighting Iraq’s difficulties with ensuring safe water quality.
Theories for Cause of Illness
To ascertain what sparked the illness, Human Rights Watch consulted with numerous Iraqi and international water quality experts and medical doctors. Researchers shared with them data from water samples, taken during the crisis from various locations along the Shatt al-Arab, from public and private water treatment plants, and from people’s taps. While the experts had different theories on potential causes of the illness, they all agreed that it was most likely the water that was the cause. They all pointed out that based on the samples and statements from Ruqay Ahmar, head of the central laboratory, about limitations to her testing equipment and regime, it was clear that authorities were not testing for many potentially harmful substances that could be present in the water being sent into people’s homes.
A theory put forward by Dr. Abdulzahra Hello, a professor of hydrology and marine sciences at Basra University, is that people were poisoned by algal blooms in water they consumed. He shared a video he and colleagues filmed on September 26 of a brown colored mass coming from al-Khandak River, a canal in the middle of Basra city that feeds into the Shatt al-Arab in central Basra city, which he thought was an algal bloom.  Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows the colored mass in the water, coming from a small canal in the middle of the city of Basra that feeds into the Shatt al-Arab, from March to November 2018.
The mass looked very characteristic of an algal bloom according to two international water quality experts who reviewed the imagery, including one who is a leading expert on harmful algal blooms. Some of the images showed a turbidity current from runoff, which is what would bring in the nutrients that algae use to grow. In fresh water, harmful algal blooms are almost exclusively caused by blue-green algae. In sea water, harmful algal blooms, often called red tide, are caused by a different type of algae called dinoflagellates. The imagery did not allow experts to identify the type of algae that the mass might represent, but the water in the Shatt al-Arab was so saline they could not rule out the presence of seawater algae. Chlorine does not effectively destroy toxins produced by harmful algal blooms.
This would not be the first time a harmful algal bloom was identified in the Shatt al-Arab. In 2015, according to a statement from the Ministry of Water Resources, authorities temporarily shut down several water treatment plants drawing water from the Shatt al-Arab because of the presence of harmful algal blooms in sea water, or red tide, that they said had proliferated because of high rates of pollution and salinity in the water.
Symptoms from drinking water contaminated with algal blooms vary depending on the type of fresh water or sea water, but include abdominal pain, fever, headache, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. Excess phosphorus from over-fertilization gets into water and feeds algae as does other organic material including human and animal sewage, and garbage.
During the crisis, around 60 percent of the victims were male, and 70 percent were within the 15- to 45-year age range. In Iraq, Human Rights Watch has observed that men of that age range are more likely to eat out at restaurants than women, children, or the elderly. One Basra healthcare worker, whose brother has worked in numerous restaurants in the city, said that restaurants often use tap water when cooking and washing dishes, instead of using filtered water. Water desalination through reverse osmosis likely would have effectively removed the common harmful algal bloom biotoxins.
Ahmar, head of the central laboratory, confirmed that her lab had no equipment to test for harmful algae. Authorities and UN staff that investigated the causes of illness at the time of the crisis also confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they never tested for algae in the water samples they sent abroad for testing.
Some experts cited other possible causes including the high levels of salinity in the water in concert with the significant levels of untreated sewage as a key likely reason why individuals got sick, with families using this contaminated tap water to wash their fruits and vegetables and their faces. Others highlighted a lack of sufficient chlorine used during treatment, fecally contaminated groundwater intrusion into the pipes along the water network, and the presence of cryptosporidium and giardia. However, a bacterial or cryptosporidium or giardia outbreak would normally show victims with symptoms that would last longer, possibly weeks, rather than several hours or only a few days.
Some experts focused on the presence of industrial waste in the water, highlighting that water samples taken over the years showed trace elements of lead, zinc, cadmium, sulfates, boron, and magnesium. Acute metal poisoning, like cadmium and mercury poisoning for example, can present with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
One international expert said the symptoms suggested an intestinal virus transmitted from contaminated food and/or water and further spread from person to person.  While the data did not allow him to identify the original source of the contamination, feces from a sick person(s), or animal(s) ending up in drinking water that was not properly disinfected could have spread the virus.
Even though the water crisis was most acute during the summer vacation, since the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, students have been hospitalized for symptoms consistent with water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, vomiting, rashes and scabies. Abu al-Khasib school principal Abd al-Razzak Sabah said that when schools reopened after the holidays, on September 30, he told the students that they had to bring drinking water with them from home because he was worried about the school’s tap water. Despite his precautions, “in my school at least 15 children got sick, maybe from the water at school, or maybe from home,” he said.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), when the school year started, more than 277,000 children in 800 schools were at increased risk of water-borne diseases, because of overcrowding in rundown facilities in extreme heat without sufficient access to safe water. The deteriorating infrastructure of schools because of a lack of sufficient investment, combined with the high concentration of children in overcrowded classrooms made schools breeding grounds for outbreaks of water-borne diseases.
This situation led to irregular school attendance and potentially school dropouts, according to the NRC, which responded by rehabilitating water infrastructures in 12 of the most affected schools. The NRC is concerned that in the summer of 2019 the same problems will arise.
Cost of Water
The high cost of water, falls especially hard on poorer residents and makes them especially vulnerable to unsafe tap water, this was particularly acute during the 2018 crisis. During the crisis, the price of filtered water from private plants and trucks increased significantly. A water trucker told Human Rights Watch that in his neighborhood of Abu al-Khasib he normally charged IQD 5,000 ($4) for 1 m3, but that during the crisis he more than doubled his prices. According to a health sector employee, in another area, truckers were charging IQD 18,000 ($15) for 1 m3 of salt water for construction, irrigation and other uses, and IQD 25,000 ($21) for 1 m3 of drinking water.
Many of those who fell sick were from the area of Abu al-Khasib, a poor town to the southeast of Basra. A healthcare worker from Abu al-Khasib said his family stopped using the water for cooking but had to keep using it for washing because they could not afford alternatives, despite him knowing the risks.
Abd al-Razzak Sabah, a school principal in Abu al-Khasib, said:
We are used to our tap water turning really salty for 2-3 months every summer, but last year it was worse than ever before, and the water started to change color, becoming brown. As a result, the public plants couldn’t do anything to make it less salty and sent us this bad tap water, and the water truckers were selling their water for too much. In our area alone at least 8,000 people ended up sick and in hospital.
The poorer families interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how they had struggled to afford filtered water as well as the registration fees for hospital, and medication from pharmacies. These families often lived either in informal housing, makeshift self-built structures usually on land not categorized as residential land and built without government permissions, or in neighborhoods far from the center of the city and main roads. As a result, some of the families said the water trucks carrying filtered water only sporadically reached their homes.
Since Basra’s first serious water crisis in 2009, authorities have embarked on a few initiatives to improve the governorate’s water supply, but they have been marred by mismanagement and a lack of long-term budgeting. At the same time, authorities have not enforced stringently enough the existing regulations around public water treatment and delivery; the private water sector, including private reverse osmosis (RO) treatment plants and water trucking; sewage treatment; and the safe disposal of industrial and agricultural waste. As a result, both the quality and quantity of water in Basra have been insufficient and a risk to its residents.
Corruption, according to residents, has also contributed to Basra’s worsening water quality and quantity by undermining enforcement of water-related laws and hobbling governmental efforts to build important water-related infrastructure. One common perception is that for almost a decade, individuals working in industry or agriculture paid bribes to local authorities to allow them to illegally tap into freshwater canals to syphon off water, leaving less fresh water for Basra’s public treatment plants. Another common view among residents is that corruption has plagued the construction of some of Basra’s water installations, including most notably the Great Basra Water Project, leading to years of delays in completing a large new desalination plant.
Iraqis continue to use water unsustainably in both agriculture and domestic use. Upstream damming and climate change have also played a role in diminishing waterflow downstream, which has affected both water quality and quantity. During the 2018 crisis, authorities failed to provide residents with adequate information, free medication, and did not carry out a thorough enough investigation into the potential sources of the health crisis.
Authorities’ failures to provide Basra residents with enough safe water can be broken down into failures around its obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill their rights to water.
Lack of Enforcement
Local and federal authorities do not properly implement and enforce Iraq’s robust regulatory framework prohibiting public and private entities from dumping untreated waste into any of the country’s waterways beyond rates allowed by the Ministry of Health. As a result, waterways including the Shatt al-Arab are replete with contaminants from human, animal, industrial and agricultural waste. The conventional treatment plants treating Basra’s tap water are not adequately treating the water to remove the contaminants, and in some cases are even failing to add the requisite chlorine during treatment.
Over the decades, as the state has failed to provide residents with adequate safe fresh water, a private water sector has proliferated. Until very recently, authorities in Basra failed to provide adequate oversight of operations of private reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plants for filtered water and water truckers, to ensure that they are licensed operators and are abiding by local and international standards to ensure proper water treatment.
Authorities have failed to ensure that all residents are connected to the water and sewage network, which has encouraged families excluded from the network to illegally tap into it. At the same time private agricultural and other businesses have been illegally tapping into the water network to access free fresh water, without authorities taken any measures to crack down on the illegal activities until the 2018 crisis.
Failure to Implement Regulations
Iraq has over a dozen laws in place that relate to water usage, management, and pollution, but authorities are failing to implement key regulations aimed at ensuring adequate water quality. This includes regulations on chlorination of water during treatment, water sample testing regimes for the public and private water sector, and the prohibition of dumping untreated human, animal, industrial, and agricultural waste into the environment beyond rates set by the Ministry of Health. These regulations, if implemented, would meet the state’s obligation to both protect citizens in the context of the private water sector, and fulfill their rights to water in the public water sector.
The most important piece of legislation protecting Iraq’s environment is the Environmental Protection and Improvement Law No. 27 of 2009. Article 14 of the law stipulates that it is prohibited to dispose of any “home liquid or industrial or serviceable or agricultural waste” into the ground or into any of Iraq’s water resources. Articles 32 to 35 lay out a regime for authorities to issue a warning to polluters within 10 days of them breaking the law and a temporary closure of the facility for 30 days renewable if it does not end the offense, as well as incremental fines and in some cases prison time. The articles require the polluter to properly dispose of their waste in order to remedy the situation.
Iraq’s Penal Code No. 111 of 1969 criminalizes willful acts that spread dangerous diseases, including disposing animal carcasses, dirty materials, or items harming the public health into any waterway.
The Law of Conserving Water Resources No. 2 of 2001 regulates the nondomestic use of water. It stipulates rules regarding the management, utilization, and preservation of Iraq’s water resources. Article 3 prohibits businesses discharging any form of waste into public waterways, unless the body obtains approval to discharge the waste as per the criteria and specifications set out by the Environment Protection and Improvement Directorate (EPID), which now sits within the Ministry of Health and Environment. It also details how to dispose of or recycle wastewater, authorizing the EPID to issue environmental restrictions pertaining to the quality of public water as well as the quality of water discharged into public water, sewage systems, or rainwater.
Article 9 prohibits disposing certain materials near water treatment plants, such as pollutants causing metal erosion, materials of high viscosity, and other non-disintegrated materials. The article also prohibits disposing carcasses, human and animal waste, decayed material, or other wastes of any kind into public waterways or riverbanks. The law authorizes provincial councils to protect and improve the environment through coordination with local councils, requiring them to identify the sources of pollution in public water and indicate the proposed treatment method as well as making plans for each governorate to protect public water from pollution and improve its quality over time.
According to Dr. Jassim Humaidi al-Falhi, Iraq’s deputy minister for the Environment, Iraq’s regulatory framework around preventing municipal authorities and private citizens from polluting Iraq’s waterways and networks is robust but there is a lack of implementation and effective monitoring. This includes a failure to properly monitor public and private plants’ proper water treatment, as well as private water trucking standards, he said. It also includes failures to enforce restrictions around dumping untreated human and animal waste and industrial and agricultural waste into Iraq’s waterways.
One significant gap in Iraq’s regulatory regime is the total absence of a public health advisory or directive system that would allow authorities to inform residents when a community's drinking water is, or could be, contaminated, what steps should be taken to mitigate harm and what protocols are in place for government officials to respond to advisories and to lift them.
Public Water Treatment
Experts told Human Rights Watch they are concerned by several gaps in the treatment and management of public drinking water in Basra. They said that treatment plants do not add enough chlorine to make the water safe and do not conduct sufficiently frequent or comprehensive water tests. They also said that the Shatt al-Arab was being used as the main source of water despite high levels of contamination.
The Ministry of Health stipulates the required chlorination levels to prevent cholera during any given season. An employee at al-Baradi'yah treatment plant, one of the main public water treatment plants in Basra, said that plants add 2.5-3 ppm of chlorine in the winter, and 4-5 ppm in the summer.
The staff at all the public water plants interviewed said that they added chlorine in line with the general standards for chlorine for tap water, at around 4 ppm, an amount in line with international standards. However, six experts interviewed said that they had direct knowledge of public water treatment plants that were not adding the requisite amount of chlorine or in some cases no chlorine at all. International water specialist Ed Brown, Professor Emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa, reviewed data from a range of water samples tested during the crisis but found no test results that would allow him to conclude whether or not sufficient chlorine had been used during treatment.
Dr. Beth Hoagland, a hydrogeochemist, explained that high concentrations of total suspended solids (TSS), sulfides, nitrites, and certain organic compounds, as well as high levels of turbidity can make chlorination less effective as a method of killing off bacteria. She said that when there is high turbidity in the water, it contains more particles to which contaminants, including bacteria, can adhere. The World Health Organization recommends that water turbidity should be less than 5 Nephelometric Turbidity Unit (NTU) for chlorination to most effectively treat water. Water sample data from the crisis period showed that turbidity at the water treatment plants was as high as 28.2 NTU. In order to address this, plants might need to increase their chlorine use.
Interviewees pointed to several reasons why the plants were using insufficient levels of chlorine. Dr. Disher said that on visits to three public treatment plants during the 2018 crisis, he saw that the chlorine pumps were not functioning, and staff there said they did not have the money to procure the chlorine they needed. Zuhair Jawad Hashim, the head of the Basra Water Department, explained that chlorine is strictly regulated because of concerns around groups like ISIS trying to steal the gas for military purposes. It requires a military escort during transport and is therefore hard to acquire. As a result, over the last several years, the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works in Baghdad, which is in charge of procuring chlorine gas for the governorates, has been delayed in doing so. Because of the delays, he said that at least once, Basra’s water department had run out of chlorine gas and had to approach neighboring governorates, asking for their stores.
Two government experts testing water samples leaving public treatment plants and at homes further down the network also said that they often find that as the water leaves the plant, there is sufficient chlorine in it, but that further down the network, no chlorine is left in the water. Chlorine is consumed as it interacts with any organic material— disinfecting by killing live bacteria and other living pathogenic organisms. If organic matteris present, free chlorine is consumed and thus no longer available to kill living pathogens.
Public Health Law No. 89 of 1981 article 64 sets out the procedures to be implemented by the authorities in charge of supplying drinking water to the citizens, including to ensure that all water supply projects are tested and licensed. Article 67 requires that every treatment plant have an “integrated laboratory to conduct micro-chemical, chemical and physical tests to determine the efficiency of the filtration stages,” as well as a laboratory at the centralized level conducting secondary testing, to conduct regular testing. Only one of the 339 public treatment plants in Basra has a laboratory for testing water samples, the Basra water department’s central laboratory in the same compound as al-Baradi'yah treatment plant, which is used to test samples from all public plants.
Ruqay Ahmar, head of the Basra water department’s central laboratory, confirmed that her laboratory takes regular samples from plants all over Basra and tests them on behalf of the Ministries of Health and Municipalities and Public Works to ensure enough chlorine is being used. She said that before the crisis, the Ministry of Health had been conducting its own tests, but now their lab processes all the samples, testing for TDS, (including the cations and anions that make up TDS like Al, K, Na, SO4, Cl, Mg), turbidity, TSS, which is similar to turbidity, hardness, temperature, and alkalinity.
Neither Zuhair Jawad Hashim, head of the Basra Water Department, nor the workers at the four plants Human Rights Watch visited knew of any advisory system for situations in which a test result from a water sample came back showing the water had not been adequately treated. They all presumed that if authorities found any problems in the samples they tested, they would notify the plant to replace some equipment and rectify. The employee from al-Baradi'yah said, “Why would we bother with an advisory? No one drinks their tap water anyway.”
A key challenge facing Basra’s public treatment plants is the reliance on the Shatt al-Arab as a water source because of the high TDS levels in the water, given that they are conventional, not desalination, plants. The public al-Baradi'yah treatment plant, built in 1957 and expanded in 1964, is one of the main water treatment plants in central Basra, servicing the cities two largest hospitals, main hotels, and the center of the city, treating 3800m3/hour. The deputy head of the plant said that during the crisis, the plant was able to get only 30 percent of its water from the Bada’a canal, relying on the Shatt al-Arab for the other 70 percent, which at that point had reached TDS levels of 22,000 ppm in central Basra.
As of October 2018, she said they are rationing the fresh water from the RZero pumping station, which in turn is sourced by the fresh water from the Bada’a canal. Under the new rationing system each neighborhood gets supplied with RZero water for one day roughly every three days, while the other neighborhoods are supplied with water from the Shatt al-Arab. Dr. Mohsen Disher, a professor in Agricultural Sciences at Basra University, said that this rationing meant that some neighborhoods received salty water in their taps for 4 days in a row and then receive fresh water for one day.
The problem extended to other plants. In 2001, the Central Organization for Standardization and Quality Control set the maximum salinity level for drinking water at TDS 1,000 ppm. Dr. Shukri al-Hassan said that during the crisis he carried out tests on water in the Shatt al-Arab and then from his tap and found that both reached TDS levels of 22,000 ppm, something confirmed by al-Baradi'yah central laboratory, which also tested water at different treatment plants in central Basra. A health sector worker showed Human Rights Watch a chart he said he obtained from the Ministry of Water Resources showing the TDS values pre-treatment at nine public treatment plants in Basra governorate on August 1, 2018. The values in al-Qurnah, a town 65 kilometers north of Basra where the Tigris and the Euphrates join to become the Shatt al-Arab, were 1,763 ppm and, as the sites moved down stream along the Shatt al-Arab, the values went up to 14,164 in central Basra city, and to 28,000 ppm in Sihan, south of Basra. Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, said that samples he had seen reached 41,000 ppm in Abu al-Khasib during the crisis.
Human and Animal Waste
The dumping of raw sewage into the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Shatt al-Arab, both within Basra and upstream, both by residents and municipal authorities (strictly prohibited under Iraqi law), is also affecting water quality in the governorate, as well as elsewhere in Iraq. In a press conference in February 2019, the prime minister stated that about 5 million m3/day of raw sewage water was being pumped directly into Tigris. Raw sewage has also seeped into Basra’s groundwater, however the full extent of the problem is not being articulated because authorities in Basra are not properly testing the water for harmful contaminants from raw sewage, based on water sample testing data shared with Human Rights Watch.
The problem of illegal dumping of sewage occurs in part because some residents of Basra are living in informal housing which is not connected legally to the water, electrical or sewage networks. A parliamentary study in 2014 estimated 338,400 Basra residents were living in 47,869 informal houses.
Some businesses, including restaurants also dump their sewage directly into Basra’s waterways, something researchers observed while in Basra in January 2019. Ruqay Ahmar, head of the central laboratory, pointed out an open sewage canal right next to the public al-Baradi'yah treatment plant, saying that during the crisis authorities closed it up but then they had to reopen it because sewage started running out onto the street. Despite requests, Human Rights Watch has been unable to ascertain whether any individuals or businesses have been penalized for illegal dumping of raw sewage.
Currently, according to authorities, only around 60 percent of Basra’s sewage is being treated at best, with the rest being dumped directly into the Shatt al-Arab. An international water expert who visited Basra in early 2019 conducted ground inspections and discovered raw sewage discharges above water treatment intake points and took water samples from various sites which tested positive for cryptosporidium and giardia spores. Cryptosporidium and giardia come from diseased human and animal fecal waste, and cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illness. Ruqay Ahmar, head of the central laboratory, confirmed that they do not test for cryptosporidium or giardia spores in water samples, and do not have the appropriate equipment to conduct such tests.
In its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), a draft national climate change action plan that Iraq submitted ahead of the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015, the government committed in 2015 to increasing sewage treatment capacity to 2.078 billion m3/year by 2035. In a positive step towards transparency, in February 2019, as a result of the crisis, the Ministry of Health and Environment started posting weekly reports on the water quality in the Tigris, Euphrates, and Shatt al-Arab. Since then the reports frequently show the water quality index falling below the ministry’s threshold for acceptable water quality at different parts of the rivers, based on a range of parameters including salinity levels, phosphates, pH levels, and other markers.
A report documenting the water quality from February 8 to 14, 2019 showed an increase in organic pollutants and bacteria in the Tigris and indicated very high levels of fecal coli bacteria and pathogenic bacteria. According to the report, this was a result of rain and flooding that swept accumulated contaminants from al-Rustamiyah plant, the oldest and largest sewage treatment plant in Iraq, into the Tigris. The report also indicated the presence of significant levels of sewage in the Diyala and Tigris rivers near Baghdad, Wasit, Maysan, and Basra. Subsequent reports also found untreated sewage in the Tigris.
Dr. Shukri al-Hassan, a marine science lecturer at Basra University, said when he raised his growing concern around excessive amounts of raw sewage and other forms of pollution being dumped into the Shatt al-Arab over the last decade with staff from the Ministry of Environment’s pollution department, they told him they were reporting on this to officials in Baghdad but received no responses to their reports.
Water specialist Ed Brown, Professor Emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa, reviewed data from a range of water samples tested during the crisis and noted that labs were not, as they should have been, testing for fecal streptococci and nitrates which are routine tests in other countries. The data was inconclusive on whether authorities were routinely testing for E. coli and/or fecal coliforms.
Beyond sewage, other solid waste is being dumped into Basra’s waterways. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights shows that an accumulation of garbage started building along canals throughout Basra, including in an area with a high concentration of food production companies, that feed into the Shatt al-Arab in the center of Basra city, from March 2018 to February 2019.
According to Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, the governor’s office ended its contract with a Kuwaiti company that has been carrying out garbage collection in Basra for years. The contract was worth IQD 69 billion ($57.8 million) annually. He said that as of March 1, 2018, the company stopped collecting garbage throughout Basra, without clearly explaining the reasons why beyond alluding to politicking between different parties. As a result, residents and companies started dumping large amounts of waste into the Shatt al-Arab, he said. Since then, he said that the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works and the governor’s office have jointly hired workers to manage garbage collection on their own.
Organic material including food waste, animal feces, dead plants, and oil residues in trash and runoff encourage algal growth in rivers and consume chlorine used to treat drinking water as it runs through the distribution system.
Industrial and Agricultural Waste
Iraq’s laws prohibit businesses from dumping any oil remains into shallow waters. They also prohibit them from discharging wastewater into public water beyond rates set by the Ministry of Health. However, these laws appear to be poorly enforced. Despite concerns that the Shatt al-Arab is contaminated by industrial and agricultural waste, authorities are not adequately testing water samples to ascertain the potentially harmful contaminants in the water.
Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch showed oil from a likely oil spill into the Shatt al-Arab near the Nahr Bin Umar oil and gas field, a site run by the Basra Oil Company (BOC), a governmental oil company, about 25 kilometers upstream from Basra city, from July 15 to July 25. Human Rights Watch was unable to determine precisely when the oil spill started, but on July 15 it appeared to span 24 kilometers along the river. The spill was never reported by public officials or by the media, and none of the water sector workers Human Rights Watch interviewed for the report had known about it.
In addition to evidence of an oil spill in 2018, media reports published in 2016 and 2017 cite two oil spills respectively in the Shatt al-Arab: in 2016, the Basra Water Directorate announced that it had suspended the operation of certain public water treatment plants and the piping of water to certain neighborhoods for three days, after an oil spill at al-Najibiya electrical power plant. In 2017, authorities announced they had stemmed the leakage of oil residue into the Shatt al-Arab again from al-Najibiya electrical power plant, which had already been fined after the 2016 spill.
Oil spills present serious health risks. Ingested hydrocarbons and metals found in crude oil will cause liver damage in the short term and many other serious health consequences including various cancers in the long term.
Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch also identified another likely oil spill into a canal in central Basra from October 28 to 29, 2018 next to a gasoline station that drifted approximately 200 meters east towards the Shatt al-Arab. This incident also went unreported at the time. In addition, two unidentified pipelines along canals in central Basra city were periodically releasing what researchers suspect were large volumes of waste liquid into the canal from July to October 2018.
Two interviewees said that their tap water sometimes smells of gasoline. At one pump located on the Shatt al-Arab that supplies water to a public treatment plant, researchers could smell gasoline and observed a shiny film across the surface of the water. Directly across the river in Abadan, Iran, there is major industrial infrastructure including a water purification plant, an oil refinery, and a petrochemical company. In September 2018, Basra residents posted on YouTube several videos of themselves lighting their tap water on fire. This could result from methane in the water, which can come from industrial processes, oil in the water after an oil spill, or oil that seeped into cracked piping within the network from groundwater. Some algae synthesize oil and if the algae then produce thick mats, methane from the bottom sediment may become trapped and accumulate under the algae. Under the right conditions, the trapped methane can ignite and burn.
Human Rights Watch identified 13 agricultural sites north of Basra, on the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab, where sugar cane is growing and where refined sugar, molasses, paper, and animal feed are produced. Sugar cane farming can pose environmental threats which include negative effects on biodiversity, runoff of nutrients, the leaching of pesticides and chemicals into the soil, excessive quantities of nutrients in waterways from fertilizer, and discharges of organic pollutants from sugar mills and ethanol distilleries. Water sample results obtained by Human Rights Watch from the time of the crisis show that at that time authorities testing water from the treatment plants were not testing for nitrates, phosphates, or organic pollutants.
The Ministry of Health and Environment 2019 weekly reports on the water quality indicated high levels of phosphates in the Tigris in Basra, Maysan, and Wasit in February 2019. The same reports also indicated high levels of nitrates in the Euphrates in Muthanna, as well as high levels of phosphates in the Shatt al-Arab. Two subsequent reports continued to show high levels of phosphates and nitrates in the Tigris, Euphrates, and Shatt al-Arab.
Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, said that during the crisis in September, the governor invited a team of scientists from Nahrain University’s DNA & Forensics Science Center in Baghdad to Basra to carry out testing of surface and deep water, and mud at 54 locations along the Shatt al-Arab. He said that the scientists found Cadmium levels of 165 parts per billion, which is 53 times the maximum allowed amounts in the water.
He said they had also found high levels of mercury, and lead at ten times the maximum limit. They also found sulfates and nitrates at nine times the maximum limit, and Boron. He said that they found in their research that increased salt and acid in water increased the leaching of cadmium from other components in the water.
As is consistent with standards globally and stipulated by the Environmental Protection and Improvement Law No. 27 of 2009, each industry should be providing regulatory authorities with measurements of effluent constituents including heavy metals if relevant to the industry.
Private Water Treatment
For decades, Basrawis have been purchasing drinking water from private reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plants. Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, said that in Basra there are over 100 private “RO plants,” as they are known locally―possibly more than 300 according to an aid worker in the water sector. These plants are required to undergo water sample testing on a monthly basis, but some plants still seem to be using too little chlorine during the treatment and distribution process. Some are failing their tests because of the presence of fecal bacteria but have not been shut down by authorities and some are even failing to register with authorities completely.
The owner of a private RO plant in Abu al-Khasib, described the typical filtration process for these plants: he said that his plant takes tap water, lets the sediment settle, and then pumps it through cotton filters and then a semipermeable membrane to remove the salt at a high pressure, through the process of reverse osmosis. He said it then pumps the water into storage containers where staff add chlorine, before selling the water to private and independent water truckers.
Because of the membranes they use, the RO plants in Basra are only meant to desalinate water of up to 4,500 TDS. If water has higher TDS values, they need to filter the water multiple times, meaning they need to replace the costly membranes much more frequently and charge more money for the treated water or try to recoup savings elsewhere. One major cost of operations is the procurement of chlorine. Five experts interviewed said they had direct knowledge that private water treatment plants were not adding enough chlorine or in some cases not adding any chlorine at all in order to save on costs. In addition, as one aid worker in the water sector explained, many RO plants use UV or ozone technology to purify water instead of chlorine because it is cheaper, even though these processes cannot guard against harmful substances that enter the water later, for example, in a water tank.
There is no definitive proof that anyone fell ill from filtered water from the private water sector during the 2018 crisis, but several interviewees told Human Rights Watch they believed they or their relatives have gotten sick from RO water, and others emphasized that water could only be purchased from specific plants, because not all plants could be trusted. A health sector employee from Abu al-Khasib said that seven of his family members got sick during the 2018 crisis even though they were only using RO water including for washing fruits and vegetables and dishes, leading him to suspect that the RO plant might not be treating the water sufficiently or that the trucks in which it was transported were contaminated.
Mehdi Hamid Silan, a laborer from an area called Salhiya, said that he and other families buy filtered water for drinking and cooking, but that he regularly gets stomach pains from that water as well and does not think it is properly treated. During the crisis several people in his family fell ill.
The Ministry of Health and Environment is responsible for monitoring the quality of water from the private plants by carrying out regular sample testing. Ahmed Hanoon, head of the environmental department, said that if a private RO plant fails a test, then the Ministry of Health and Environment gives the plant a 10-day warning during which time it should stop operating and fix the problem before the department returns to test the water again. If it fails again, then the department takes legal action to either fine the plant or force it to shut down.
However, it appears the ministry does not always follow these procedures. Human Rights Watch obtained a document dated October 21, 2018 that showed laboratory test results for water samples taken from three different private RO treatment plants, done by the Iraqi Food Safety Laboratory. The document showed that all three samples failed to meet standards due to the presence of fecal bacteria and low levels of pH. After the failing results, the person who provided the document on condition of anonymity said the three plants were required to change their filters, separators, and refiners, before they were retested. He personally knew someone who worked at one of the plants and confirmed that it continued to fail tests from then through January 2019 but was still operating. He said that after each failed test, the plant again was told to change certain equipment but then restarted treating water seemingly without doing so. Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify the instances.
Even more concerning, Dr. Shukri al-Hassan said he knew of many private RO plants that were not registered with the Ministry of Health at the time of the crisis so were operating outside the law and therefore were not part of the testing regime, something confirmed by Zuhair Jawad Hashim, head of the Basra Water Department.
Basra residents rely on buying filtered water from private RO treatment plants, which private water truckers who also function as private operators deliver to them. In 1993, the Ministry of Environment issued a set of instructions governing the private water trucking sectoring in Iraq. It stipulates that truckers need to obtain a license to sell water, which they need to renew every three months subsequent to an annual medical test and tank inspections every three months. It also stipulates that they are only allowed to deliver a specific type of water and cannot switch between types—for construction, irrigation, or drinking for example. They should also always buy the water they transport and sell from the same plant. Breaking the instructions can lead to heavy penalties or prison time according to the instructions.
The World Health Organization’s Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality stipulates that water truckers clean their tanks when changing between different fluids to avoid contamination and add chlorine to the water at the point of delivery to users.
However, in Basra some of the drivers are transporting different types of water without properly sanitizing their tanks between journeys in line with best practices and Iraqi regulations and without being properly vetted by RO water treatment plant owners to ensure they are licensed, while others reportedly are paying bribes to avoid having their tanks regularly tested (see section below on corruption). They are not adding chlorine at the point of delivery as far as Human Rights Watch could determine, nor are they monitoring residual chlorine levels when they transfer the water to storage containers.
There is no direct evidence that water trucks, which are generally transporting between 8 and 20 m3 of filtered water to people’s homes, might have led to illness during the 2018 crisis. However, three experts with direct knowledge of water trucking said that they knew of specific instances where water truckers would transport Shatt al-Arab water for irrigation one day, and then filtered water for people to drink the next, without properly cleaning out their tanks. Truckers in Basra generally transport three different types of water: for construction directly from the river, from open canals for irrigation and animals (through illegal tapping), and filtered water for drinking. Some use the same trucks for all three.
Abd al-Atheem Jaseen, a laborer, said that while working on a construction site he had seen a water trucker bring river water to the site, and the next day saw that same trucker delivering filtered water to his neighborhood. Abd al-Razzak, a water trucker since 12 years, admitted that he personally knew truckers who transport different types of water on a regular basis, but said he assumes they rinse out their tanks between changing water sources.
The ministries of health and municipalities and public works monitor the operation of water trucks. Kathim Dayigh, a water trucker, said that to obtain a license from the Ministry of Health to operate a water truck, he had to undergo a blood test and the ministry tested his truck for cracks, rust, and any signs of peeling paint, and took a water sample from the truck. He and another trucker said they went back for the water in their trucks to be tested about once every three to four months. Private RO plants however are not demanding truckers’ licenses before supplying them. The private plant owner said that at his plant, “I don’t ask for a license from water truckers who come. I fill up any tank that looks clean.” Abd al-Razzak said that he knew many water truckers who did not have a license from the Ministry of Health, but had no difficulty finding plants that would fill up their tanks.
Dr. Shukri al-Hassan said many water truckers without licenses still found water to purchase for resale because demand was so high. At the same time, truckers without licenses do not appear to be targeted by the local police. Ahmed Hanoon, head of the environmental department within the Ministry of Health and Environment, said that during the crisis his department made several appeals to the local traffic police, calling on them to pull over and check the license of water truckers. He did not share any details regarding whether the traffic police acted on this, and what they found but according to Dayigh there was no increased testing of truckers from the neighborhood during the crisis.
In a positive development, on July 2, 2019 Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, stated in a Facebook post that local authorities had set a deadline of July 15, by which time all water truckers had to obtain the correct licenses in order to operate. The decision called on security forces, traffic police and other authorities to take measures to crack down on water truckers operating illegally.
Informal Housing and Clandestine Taps
Over 338,400 residents of Basra living in informal housing and are the most water-insecure in the governorate. As a result of being excluded from the formal water network, some resort to tapping illegally into the water network if there are pipes that run under their homes.
An employee at al-Baradi'yah treatment plant, said that until the crisis, they were only receiving 30 percent of the water being sent to them from the RZero pumping station due to illegal tapping. He and Zuhair Jawad Hashim, head of the Basra Water Department, said that number was now up to around 60 percent, but that the remaining 40 continues to be lost because of illegal tapping. He and other experts explained that families living in informal housing have tapped into the network, as well as car wash shops, private reverse osmosis (RO) plants, and private reverse osmosis (RO) ice plants.
According to General Authority for Water and Sewage Law No. 27 of 1999, all private properties located in an area with a water and sewage network must be connected to it. However with people building their own informal housing including on land not categorized as residential, this law is not being applied to those properties.
Illegal Tapping of Canals
For many years business have been taking water straight from the open canals and pumping it to their factories and farms. After years of inaction, during the 2018 water crisis, authorities seem to have swiftly taken steps to limit the practice, apparently showing that political will was the main barrier towards addressing the problem. Despite this, however, no steps have been taken to penalize those stealing the water.
In an anecdotal study using satellite images, Human Rights Watch documented illegal tapping of canals occurring in at least five sites along the Ktaiban canal between 2017 and 2018 and identified three more sites where illegal tapping may have also occurred along the canal in 2016, 2017, and 2018. All the locations identified are located between Abu al-Khasib and Siba and the imagery appears to show pumps and piping being used to syphon water from the canal into different agricultural and other business sites. The Basra Operations Command, which sits jointly under the Iraqi Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, admitted there were many such sites along the canal. Human Rights Watch also identified three sites where illegal water tapping occurred along the Bada’a canal, directly south of Basra city, and in Abu al-Khasib, in one case as early as 2008 through 2017. At each of these sites, imagery shows that canals were constructed that syphoned water directly from the Bada’a canal into man-made reservoirs.
Researchers visited the site of one former tapping operation along the Ktaiban canal that was featured in a clip on YouTube from July 4, 2018, showing Muhammad al-Tamimi, the first deputy governor of Basra, inspecting a pipe that appears to take water directly from the canal south of Basra and pump it a few dozen meters away to a large pond for fish farming. Satellite images capture the fish pond, which was created and then expanded between 2008 and 2014, syphoning off water from the canal from May 26 to July 3, 2018.
Imagery shows that after July 2018, once authorities cracked down on the tapping at some point between July 4 and 11, the site dried up and has remained unused since. 1.36 kilometers south of the first site, researchers saw an abandoned water pump and two pipes that had been severed, that had been used to transfer water out of the canal to an undetermined site. Satellite imagery shows the presence of the pipe as of May or June of 2017.
This site is close to a main road and bridge and was very visible to local authorities.
As a result of illegal tapping from the Bada’a canal, an employee at the public al-Baradi'yah treatment plant said that before 2003, the plant had been able to get all its water from the Bada’a canal, but that since then illegal water tapping had spiraled out of control and the canal was not able to provide enough water to the plant, leading them to pump water from the Shatt al-Arab.
Irrigation Law No. 6 of 1962 and its Amendments stipulates that the Ministry of Water Resources bears the responsibility of monitoring, operating and protecting lakes and rivers as well as monitoring and improving the natural and man-made waterways. Almost all interviewees said that as a result, the Ministry of Water Resources was responsible for preventing tapping from the Bada’a and Ktaiban canals and that it should have called on security forces to take action much earlier.
However, former Minister of Water Resources Hassan Janabi said that it was the job of local authorities to notify and trigger action from the local police and other security forces. Zuhair Jawad Hashim, the head of the Basra Water Department, said that responsibility was shared: in his view it was the responsibility of his office, the governor, and security forces to jointly monitor and prevent illegal tapping of any water source within the governorate. Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, also blamed the security forces, saying that the illegal tapping was the result of a failure by the Basra Operations Command to crack down.
With regards to the tapping of water directly from the network as opposed to waterways, for example tapping of pipes leaving RZero and the Basra treatment plants, interviewees all agreed that the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works was responsible for identifying those illegally tapping the water and asking the security forces to act. Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, said that he knew that individuals tapping the pipes, including for large agricultural projects, paid employees in the water department bribes in order to avoid being reported. However, another interviewee blamed the governor’s office, saying that the governor and local authorities are preoccupied with maintaining their votes and are therefore unwilling to crack down as that would risk angering key members of their constituency.
For the past several years, even in cases in which tapping was reported and action was taken to end it by local Basra authorities, no steps were taken to penalize those stealing the water, and in some cases they resumed their illegal activities later. Hassan Yusif, the manager of Sihan water treatment plant that sits along the Ktaiban canal, said that by 2012 farmers were tapping into the canal, and that he had reported this many times, but despite some measures to stop the tapping, the farmers were continuing the illegal practice because they were not being penalized: “We wrote many letters to the governor’s office reporting on this. Sometimes the governor’s office sent a committee to remove the pipe, but would not force the agricultural site to close, so right afterwards the farmers would set up a new pipe.”
Authorities’ inaction in the face of rampant and blatant illegal tapping has raised suspicions that people may indeed have paid bribes to officials to look the other way. Yet the head of the Integrity Commission in the Basra governor’s office said that his team had never opened any investigation into corruption in the water sector. In addition, the director of the Basra Agriculture Department, denied all knowledge of illegal water tapping for the purposes of farming.
Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, said that permanently ending the illegal tapping of water resources was essential to guarantee better water quality in the taps of Basra’s residents.
Following the 2018 water crisis, Basra authorities seem to have taken further steps to end this practice. Once the crisis began, former Minister Hassan Janabi said that his ministry coordinated with the Basra Operations Command to try to prevent illegal water tapping of both Bada’a and Ktaiban canals and authorities cut off electricity at sites running illegal water pumps along the canals. According to Mufeed Abdulzahra, head of the Basra office of the Ministry of Water Resources, since the crackdown, the Basra Operations Command also continues to fly helicopters over the canals to monitor illegal tapping. Four experts interviewed said that armed forces had been able to make a significant dent into the tapping operations, but that tappers had not been penalized and the experts were unsure if results would last in the long term as a result. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch showed that, as of April 2019, illegal tapping had not returned to the identified locations.
Mismanagement & Corruption
Authorities have severely mismanaged Iraq’s water resources so that rivers and freshwater canals are not delivering adequate quantities of good quality water to the governorate’s public treatment plants. Authorities have also mismanaged the design, budgeting, and implementation of engineering projects to address the water crisis and provide engineering solutions to improve water quality and quantity. Corruption within local businesses and governmental institutions has also prevented engineering solutions from being completed on time and the proper monitoring of the private water sector.
Mismanagement of Upstream Water Resources
Fresh water flowing into the Shatt al-Arab from the Tigris and Euphrates guards against the intrusion of sea water. The sustained decrease in these flows has increased the Shatt al-Arab’s salinity, making reliance on the river as Basra’s primary water source increasingly untenable.
According to data provided by the Ministry of Water Resources tracking the quantity of water flowing into the Shatt al-Arab from upstream throughout 2018, in January 2018, the flow of water to the Shatt al-Arab was at its lowest for the year. That month, the Qalat al-Saleh regulator dam, which sits along the Tigris river 120 kilometers north of Basra city, sent an average of 37 cubic meters of water per second (m3/sec) downstream, but Basra city received only 32 m3/sec of that water, a rate that would allow for the encroachment of sea water into the Shatt al-Arab. Every expert interviewed in Basra and Baghdad agreed that in order to prevent seawater intrusion, the Shatt al-Arab needed to receive 50 m3/sec of water from upstream. The Ministry of Water Resources’ data showed higher water flows during the summer months, with the ministry sending between 53 and 98 m3/sec of water to Basra from the Qalat al-Saleh regulator dam and Basra receiving between 46 and 88 m3/sec of water.
Dr. Abdulzahra Hello, a professor of hydrology and marine sciences at Basra University, pointed out that even if the amounts of water the ministry was reportedly sending down the Tigris were accurate and ignoring a certain loss rate before Basra city, they were still not high enough to prevent seawater intrusion. He said that from Maysan governorate to Basra, 35 m3/sec of water was needed to service Basra’s main oil refineries, the Great Basra Water Project’s construction site in Hartha, 20 kilometers north of Basra, and agriculture along the banks north of the city. He said that the Ministry of Water Resources was taking another 5 m3/sec out of the river to furnish the Ktaiban irrigation canal. All this left little water for residents of the city of Basra.
The decrease in flows may be even worse than what is officially reported. Five interviewees who had been monitoring the water flow from the Tigris during the 2018 crisis told Human Rights Watch that they believe authorities inaccurately inflate the amount of water they are sending down the river to Basra. When it comes to water supply from the Tigris river, they alleged that the Ministry of Water Resources was not accurately reporting the amount of water it was sending down the river—the levels of water being provided were actually lower, resulting in more seawater intrusion and higher salinity levels. One said that in April 2017 he visited the Qalat al-Saleh dam, where officials told him they were sending 50 m3/sec of water but that by the time he had returned to Basra, the Basra water department reported to him that they had cut the flow. These allegations match the extremely high TDS levels in the water in the Shatt al-Arab during the crisis. None of the five interviewees had ties to either local or federal authorities.
During the 2018 water crisis, according to data provided by the Ministry of Water Resources, between May and November of 2018, the ministry was sending between 53 and 98 m3/sec to Basra from the Qalat al-Saleh regulator. Basra was receiving between 46 and 88 m3/sec, reflecting between 4 and 10 m3/sec being used before the water reaches Basra city along the 41 kilometers of river. These numbers contrast with what was observed by four of the interviewees monitoring the water flow, who stated that at the onset of the crisis the flow from Kut dam slowed from a typical 90 m3/sec to 25-30 m3/sec. Alaa Hashim al-Badran, Basra Provincial Council Secretary for the Restoration of the Marshlands, said that during the summer, Basra was receiving only 20-30 m3/sec from the Tigris—in other words, nowhere near enough to stave off seawater intrusion. As a result, during the crisis, the intruding sea water almost reached the area of al-Qurnah, 165 kilometers upstream from the Persian Gulf, the highest ever recorded.
In order to address the years old problem of seawater intrusion into the Shatt al-Arab, historically Basra has relied on two canals, the Ktaiban and Bada’a canals, that are intended to transport fresh water to residents for domestic use and irrigation but these canals have not provided enough water to Basra and there are also concerns regarding the quality of the water in the canals.
Ktaiban canal is an irrigation canal that branches off from the Shatt al-Arab and carries water at a rate of 30 m3/sec south of Basra city. Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, said that in an attempt to provide an alternative source of higher quality fresh water for irrigation, in 2008 the federal government spent IQD 400 billion ($333 million) to construct the canal, which branches off from the Shatt al-Arab in Ktaiban, 40 kilometers north of Basra, and runs for a length of 128 kilometers alongside the Shatt al-Arab. The water in the Shatt al-Arab where Ktaiban begins is already seeing elevated TDS levels because of seawater intrusion, thus contaminating the irrigation canal.
Hassan Yusif is the manager of one of Basra’s public water treatment plants, the Sihan public water treatment plant near Siba, a town that sits on the Ktaiban irrigation canal and the Shatt al-Arab, 50 kilometers south of Basra. The Sihan plant partly relies on the canal for its water. Yusif said that because it is a conventional plant, not a desalination plant, they are unable to do anything beyond filtering and chlorinating the water they receive from the canal and the Shatt al-Arab before sending it into people’s homes. The maximum salinity level for drinking water is set at TDS 1,000 parts per million (ppm) in Iraq but during the 2018 crisis, TDS levels in the canal reached 16,000 ppm, and at the same time closer to 50,000 ppm in the Shatt al-Arab. He said:
We had to keep switching between the two sources [the Shatt al-Arab and the Ktaiban canal] because there were lots of electrical cuts, which caused the pump in the canal to stop working and we were not getting enough water from the canal. Later in the crisis, Ataba [the private religious organization linked to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani] intervened and improved electricity to the pump in the canal and to the treatment plant which made a big difference. But even then, we do not get enough water in the summer months from the canal to solely rely on that, so we have to draw some water from the Shatt al-Arab.
He said that when the electrical cuts affected the water pumps the canal started to smell “rotten.” As of January 2019, the plant was only getting half of the water it took in for treatment from the canal, and the other half from the Shatt al-Arab, he said.
The Bada’a Irrigation Canal and RZero Pumping Station
Approximately half the population of Basra—two million people—rely on water that flows from the Bada’a irrigation canal into the RZero pumping station, according to Alaa Hashim al-Badran, Basra Provincial Council Secretary for the Restoration of the Marshlands. The Ministry of Water Resources constructed both the canal and the storage plant in 1997. The Bada’a canal begins in the town of Kut, 280 kilometers northeast of Basra, and runs south to Nasriya and the Central and Hammar marshes to the RZero pumping station. Water from RZero is then pumped to between 6 and 12 major treatment plants in Basra, all of which sit along the Shatt al-Arab. The canal, which has no cover enclosing the water, has the capability to deliver an average of 7 m³/sec of water to RZero. However, according to al-Badran, the Ministry of Water Resources was only sending 7 m3/sec down the Bada’a canal in September and October, but was sending far less during the other months of the crisis and throughout the year.
Former Water Resources Minister, Hassan Janabi, said this open canal system was only meant to be a short-term measure and did not represent a long-term solution. It is incredibly expensive to maintain and loses water from evaporation, leakage, and illegal water tapping directly from the canal. The water is also contaminated by pollutants that enter the water along the canal.
Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, said that one reason for the leakage is that over the last years, the Ministry of Water Resources had not spent enough money on the upkeep of Bada’a canal, nor has the Basra water department spent enough on RZero. He said that RZero had been working over capacity for the last five years and during the crisis operated nonstop, thus damaging parts of the installation. He said because of the damage the installation was now only functioning at 50 percent.
Mismanagement of Attempted Engineering Solutions
Despite the acute and lengthy water crisis, authorities have failed to budget and implement successful projects to provide engineering solutions to improve water quality and quantity. The story of the construction of eight desalination plants in al-Faw and Sihan is emblematic of authorities’ mismanagement of funds towards engineering projects in the water sector.
Al-Faw and Sihan Desalination Plants
Zaki Aziz Gharban, the deputy head of the Siba provincial council and the staff at the Sihan water treatment plant next to Siba, told Human Rights Watch that in 2009 following Basra’s first water crisis, Baghdad decided to build four desalination plants in Sihan and another four in al-Faw, near the Persian Gulf estuary, paid for by the Prime Minister’s office. The four plants in Sihan were meant to be able to desalinate a total of 400 m3/hour of water. Four individuals with direct knowledge of the project said that as far as they were aware, before the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works in Baghdad signed the contracts to build the plants, the federal government and the companies involved in the project did not conduct any ground engineering assessment. As a result, the plants that were built were not fit for desalinating water in these areas, because the water has lots of mud in it.
As constructed, the plants did not have facilities to let the mud settle and add aluminum sulfate as a way of removing the mud from the water. As a result, once built, the plants were not functional. They sat unused for almost a decade, until the 2018 crisis, when Ataba, the private religious organization linked to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, brokered a deal with authorities to rehabilitate and run the plants. When Human Rights Watch researchers visited Basra in January 2019, only two out of the four plants in Sihan were functioning, desalinating water from the Ktaiban irrigation canal as opposed to the Shatt al-Arab, because of the absence of mud in the canal water.
Inadequate Budget Allocations, Investments, Training
For decades the state has seemingly failed to ensure enough budgetary spending to build new water and wastewater infrastructure as well as maintain current ones, including the treatment plants, freshwater canals, and the piping network. This situation has persisted even after Basra’s 2009 water crisis.
In addition, authorities have failed to properly train and employ enough individuals to operate and maintain the infrastructure and service these sites, and to properly equip Basra’s central laboratory to test water samples from all its public treatment plants for the full range of possible harmful biological and chemical substances and to monitor compliance with regulations.
Damaged Water Network
Basra’s water network has had minimal investment in upkeep over the past few decades despite the rising total dissolved solids (TDS) levels in the water which are causing damage.  As a result, the iron, plastic, PVC, and concrete piping network delivering water from treatment plants to people’s homes has fallen into disrepair. An international water expert who visited Basra in early 2019 and conducted inspections concluded there was 50 percent leakage in the piping network.
Exacerbating matters, former Minister of Water Resources, Hassan Janabi, explained that because of cuts in electricity, which plague Basra, like the rest of Iraq, the water flow in the piping network gets frequently interrupted. At moments when the waterflow stops, the change of pressure in the piping causes the surrounding groundwater to get sucked into the piping network, bringing with it mud, sewage, and other waste that comes straight into people’s taps. Videos posted on YouTube by Basra residents between August and September of 2018, when there were frequent electricity cuts, show that the water coming out of the taps was muddy. Ed Brown, Professor Emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa, said that once fecally contaminated groundwater enters into the piping network even if residents chlorinate their tap water this would likely not effectively treat the new contaminants entering the system.
Sabah al-Bazooni, head of Basra’s provincial council, said that one of the biggest obstacles to repairing the network is the informal housing that has been constructed on land over the piping network. Fixing the pipes would require destroying some of the housing in order to get access. Zuhair Jawad Hashim, the head of the Basra Water Department, added that the tunnels that give access to the piping are too dangerous to enter because they have not been maintained. Alaa Hashim al-Badran, Basra Provincial Council Secretary for the Restoration of the Marshlands, said he had seen estimates that it would cost close to $11 billion to redo Basra’s piping network.
In its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) linked to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015, the government committed to rehabilitating and expanding the water piping network that transports tap water to people’s homes by 2035 to ensure better delivery and minimize losses from leakage. Zuhair Jawad Hashim said that the operational budget he was allocated during the crisis was spent within three months because of the amount of equipment he needed to replace. He said that in the five years preceding the crisis, he had not had the budget to do any maintenance of the water network. Most water systems have two budget lines, one for routine operation and maintenance and one for capital investments. If the operation and maintenance budget is too low, it will mostly be spent on basic operations such as, for example, paying staff, buying disinfectant supplies, or paying energy costs. If systems cannot invest in routine maintenance of the system to repair leaks and maintain pumps, then the system will eventually need extensive capital investments for repair.
Basra’s 339 public water treatment plants are all conventional plants and cannot treat the high salinity rates found in the Persian Gulf’s sea water. The seawater intrusion into the Shatt al-Arab has had terrible effects on these plants and they have fallen into disrepair. According to the staff at the four plants Human Rights Watch visited, the high TDS count in the water has been eating away at plastic and metal with which it comes into contact. Because of the high corrosiveness of the water, the plants need to replace parts at a high rate.
Water Sample Testing
The Basra water department’s central laboratory is the only laboratory for testing water samples from all the treatment plants in Basra. Two plant managers explained that staff from the Ministries of Health and of Municipalities and Public Works come to the plants every 1-2 weeks to take samples from the water to test at the central laboratory.
Ruqay Ahmar, head of the central laboratory, said her lab was woefully under-resourced, with no proper equipment to test samples for many of the possible harmful substances that might have led to the ongoing health crisis, including dangerous heavy metals, algal blooms, or cryptosporidium. Chlorine and organic pollution can cause a reaction that produces a cancerous byproduct but Ahmar said that they have no equipment to test for that. She said the lab has UV equipment but does not have the ability to confirm its results.
Training and Staffing of Plant Operators
The manager at Sihan, a public water treatment plant, said that staffing represents a challenge, with the ministry not sending him staff with adequate training in treatment with chlorine and aluminum sulfate. “As a result the small number of staff who are trained need to work incredibly long hours, sometimes 24 hour shifts, just to maintain the treatment plant’s outputs,” he said. An employee at al-Baradi'yah treatment plant said that in a welcome change following the 2018 crisis, the ministry had increased its trainings for staff on chlorine usage.
In one acute example of staffing shortages, in 2011, the UN Development Programme paid for the construction of a purification plant in Khor al-Zubair that had the capacity to purify 25 m3/hour. An expert who was assessing the functionality of plants during the 2018 crisis said that he visited the plant in August 2018 only to find that it had never started working. He said the director of the plant explained that it was because the Basra water department had never given him any employees to work at the plant.
Even the staff on hand may not be adequately trained. In a sign of the lack of appropriate awareness of water quality on the side of staff at public treatment plants, or at the very least a lack of adequate communication, one manager said, “I have no idea what they are testing for and what they do if a test comes out negative. I assume if there was an issue with the testing, then they would inform the ministries and municipal authorities.”
One international water expert who visited Basra after the 2018 crisis pointed out that most public plant staff and operators have no written Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). “SOPs need to be ingrained and thousands of plant staff need to be trained in them as soon as possible, otherwise even the best plants will fall quickly into disrepair and be unproductive,” he said.
Annual reports by the Iraqi Commission of Integrity, Iraq’s governmental corruption watchdog, indicate that corruption remains a pervasive problem in the country. In 2017, the commission said it investigated and issued arrest warrants for hundreds of suspected crimes related to corruption and convicted 37 individuals. In its 2018 annual report, the commission investigated 221 delayed and incomplete public works projects valued at $1.5 billion and opened criminal investigations into 41 of them, which were valued at $1 billion. The reports do not provide sufficient information to determine whether these cases implicated the water sector, but a Basra official told Human Rights Watch that the Minister of Municipalities and Public Works referred the former head of the Great Basra Water Project, described below, to the Commission.
Several interviewees believed that some truck drivers who deliver drinking water pay officials bribes to avoid required inspections and tests. Since water provided through the public networks is not good enough quality for drinking or cooking, all Basra residents rely on private treatment plants that filter the water through a process of reverse osmosis. This water is then delivered to them by private water trucks. While the law requires that the water trucks undergo inspections and drivers have medical exams, including to test for HIV, and receive licenses, one expert said he personally knew drivers who said they were able to bribe officials at the Pollution department in the Ministry of Environment in order to obtain a license but avoid having their tanks tested. Another Basra resident said he was personally familiar with this practice and said that as part of the licensing regime, truckers had to pay a one-off fee of IQD 22,000 ($ 18), then another IQD 25,000 ($ 21) for their annual medical examination and finally IQD 72,000 ($ 60) for tank inspections every three month which they told him were prohibitive costs that they preferred to avoid.
Great Basra Water Project
In 2008, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) approved a project aimed at improving the quality and quantity of water in Basra. On June 11, 2008, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) signed a loan agreement with the government of Iraq for JPY 42,969 million ($395 million) for the first tranche of a project set to cost JPY 72,944 million ($672 million) in total. The Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works was supposed to complete the project, which included the rehabilitation and construction of water treatment plants in Hartha, 20 kilometers north of Basra, by November 2014. The project promised to increase Basra’s water supply by 195,800 m3/day within two years of the project’s completion, bring TDS levels down to 900 ppm and turbidity down to 10 Nephelometric Turbidity Unit (NTU) or less, and limit water leakage in the system to 30 percent.
However, it is unclear when construction on the project began and it has yet to open. According to the Deputy Governor of Basra, Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, construction work only began in 2012 and when he visited the site in 2015, he barely saw any signs of progress. Satellite imagery of the site analyzed by Human Rights Watch confirmed minimal construction at the site by December 2015.
Dr. al-Ajwady said he was so concerned that the construction delays were due to misuse of the loaned money that he pushed for a committee to investigate. However, the governor’s office formed such a committee, which found that there had been no significant delays or corruption and that the plant would be open in 2016, he said. Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain a copy of the report that the committee drafted.
Despite the committee’s prediction, the plant has still has not opened. The Iraqi government and JICA’s lack of transparency regarding obstacles to project progress makes it difficult to identify the specific reasons for this. In a written exchange with Human Rights Watch on May 24, 2018, JICA cited various reasons for the delays: “deterioration of [the] security situation, scope change and rebidding,” without providing any further detail. However, five people with close knowledge of the project alleged that corruption caused or exacerbated delays. Two government officials in Basra and Baghdad and an international water expert recounted to Human Rights Watch that Iraqi individuals in charge of the project told them that some officials had purposefully created delays in order to increase the length of lucrative contracts with local contractors. Two international diplomats who studied the Japanese project alleged that customs authorities refused to let the necessary construction parts through because the Japanese refused to pay them bribes. One of the experts said he also had direct knowledge of instances where Japanese experts’ visas to Iraq were delayed or not processed because they refused to pay bribes.
One Basra official said officials wanted delays in order to increase the length of salaries for workers. Another said that on November 21, 2018, the Minister of Municipalities and Public Works referred a senior official connected with the project to the Iraqi Commission of Integrity on corruption allegations.
JICA stated that it “has not received any information regarding alleged fraud and corruption” linked to the project and that JICA has requested that the parties involved in the project since its inception adhere to JICA’s compliance requirements.
A May 2018 JICA public statement stated that the first tranche of the loan agreement equivalent to nearly $400 million had already been disbursed to the Iraqi government. JICA documents show that the second tranche of the loan agreement, totaling $173 million, began in August 2018, and that the total project cost had been increased to JPY 97.670 billion ($872 million). JICA did not provide any public explanation for what appeared to be a gap of four years of progress from 2014 to 2018. In its written exchange with Human Rights Watch on May 24, 2018, JICA did not explain the reason for the increase in costs but said that the costs might further change due to “some procurement procedures.”
The construction work has yet to be completed and, despite several requests, Human Rights Watch was unable to determine from Japanese or Iraqi officials when it would be completed, or how much of the allocated money had already been spent. JICA told Human Rights Watch it expected the project to start providing water “as soon as possible.” An international expert linked to the project said it was unlikely the plant could be completed soon. He said that as far as he knew, as of Januray 2019 there were at least 12 more months of construction needed and then a commissioning period of two years before it would become operational.
Unsustainable Agricultural and Domestic Water Usage
Despite Iraq’s limited water resources, authorities have not taken enough action to educate farmers on water-efficient agricultural practices, nor educate families on responsible domestic use of water.
Seventy to eighty percent of Iraq’s water usage is agricultural. Because of the shortage of water and its quality deterioration, traditional flood irrigation use in agricultural practices is no longer an option for Iraq. In its 2015 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) linked to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the government stated that it would introduce machine-led drip and sprinkler irrigation systems throughout the country at an estimated cost of $45.5 billion over the coming 20 years. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, this initiative has yet to begin. The INDC stated that if these agricultural changes were not implemented, Iraq risked a decrease in agricultural production of up to 20 percent between 2015 and 2035.
According to Paul Schlunke, Senior Emergency Response Coordinator for FAO in Iraq, the entire agriculture system in southern Iraq must shift from traditional agriculture to protected green or plastic houses and the use of water-efficient irrigation methods with dripper, sprinkler, and hydroponic agriculture techniques in light of water shortage concerns. Schlunke said that the federal government would need to invest a considerable amount, in the hundreds of millions he estimated, in order to help farmers switch their irrigation methods to those more suited to Iraq’s water shortages.
Following the 2018 crisis, the Ministry of Agriculture agreed that going forward while it continues to designate the proportion of land in each governorate that is dedicated to agriculture, the Ministry of Water Resources will play that role when it comes to wheat production. Because of the 2018 crisis, Paul Schlunke, Senior Emergency Response Coordinator for FAO in Iraq, said they had banned growing corn, rice, and millet in the south for the rest of the year. He said they did not keep the ban in place for 2019, even though rice, for example, is water intensive and thus more expensive to grow locally than to buy from abroad.
To conserve water, Iraq should limit the growing of wheat in the south to sprinkler irrigation. Growing wheat is water intensive using traditional flood irrigation methods. It would be more economic to buy wheat from abroad at a significantly lower cost, Schlunke said. However, he cited the complications with this, given that wheat is a heavily subsidized crop, which the government purchases from farmers to support the Public Distribution System (PDS) which includes the distribution of flour in the PDS basket. He said that Iraq needed to move away from traditional crops to crops that are less water intensive and salt-tolerant varieties.
Domestic Water Use
The representative of an international team of engineers who spent weeks in Basra in 2018 assessing the water situation said that, by their assessment, current water consumption rates in Basra are at about 0.3 m3/day or 300 liters per person per day, far higher than consumption rates in Europe. Part of the reason for the high consumption rates is that in Iraq tariffs for water consumption are extremely low, close to $ 0.01 per m3. Most local and federal authorities have taken no steps to educate the population about responsible water usage and try to change their water usage habits. However, in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, for example, in June 2018 authorities mandated that all residents install water meters to record consumption in an aim to reduce over-consumption, introducing fines for residents who did not install the meters.
Residents are already suffering the consequences of the dangers of over usage on a regular basis. Mehdi Hamid Silan, a laborer from an area called Salhiya, said that his neighborhood of about 60 households rarely gets tap water. “Since 2003, every summer our area totally stops getting tap water―we are at the end of the water network and the water just runs out by the time it gets to us,” he said. “So, we get all our water for washing and irrigation straight from a small river here, which gets its water from the Shatt al-Arab.”
Zaki Aziz Gharban, the deputy head of the Siba provincial council, a town with around 17,000 residents, told Human Rights Watch that there is a pipeline from RZero to the area via Abu al-Khasib.  He said that during the crisis, all the water was being used up in Abu al-Khasib so none made it to Siba.
Lack of Adequate Information, Healthcare, and Remedial Measures
Local and national authorities failed to adequately respond to the 2018 water crisis in Basra. They did too little to stock hospitals with needed medication, and at the same time did not wave the registration fees for incoming patients. They failed to launch an adequate information campaign warning people about the quality of their tap water or where to seek advice on safe water sources or medical treatment. Authorities also failed to properly investigate the causes of the illness, and since the end of the crisis in November 2018, have failed to make public any information that can explain to the population why at least 118,000 people got sick and what steps the authorities have taken since then to avoid another crisis in the coming years.
In an attempt to stop sending contaminated water into people’s homes, on September 4, the provincial council issued an order prohibiting the water department from taking water from the Shatt al-Arab. However, Zuhair Jawad Hashim, the head of the Basra Water Department, said that had simply not been possible, “There was absolutely no alternative for so many people in Basra. How on earth could we have implemented that?”
On March 19, 2019, the Prime Minister appointed Hadi al-Ameri, one of the most senior commanders of the Popular Mobilization Forces who headed a political bloc which came in second in 2018 parliamentary elections, to supervise the completion of water and electricity projects in Basra before the summer of 2019. Human Rights Watch has been unable to gain information about his strategy to fulfill this task.
Access to Healthcare
Despite a statement from the Ministry of Health to the contrary, private and public hospitals charged individuals a registration fee when they came in for treatment during the crisis. The fee depends on the facility but Basrawis told Human Rights Watch they had had to pay between IQD 2,000 and 7,000 ($1.6 and $6) per family member that fell ill.
A Basra healthcare worker said that a week into the outbreak of the crisis, the ministry increased the stock of saline solution bags at Basra’s main hospitals. Beyond the saline solution, while public hospitals should have dispensed free medication, many told Human Rights Watch that by the time they went to the hospital, it had run out of the medication they were prescribed and they had to buy it at local pharmacies, spending up to IQD 19,000 (USD$16)each time someone in the family fell sick. Mehdi Abd al-Sayad Hamza, a farmer from Salhiya, said that in addition to the registration fees and cost of medication, his family had to pay about IQD 25,000 ($20) each time someone fell ill simply for a taxi to bring them to the hospital and back because they live in a remote area.
Failure to Provide Information
In the only official Ministry of Health statement of its kind at any time during the crisis, on August 25, then health minister Adila Hamoud held a press conference in Basra, where she downplayed the health crisis. She said that there was no outbreak of cholera, that all the cases were mild, and that the necessary treatments were being provided, without providing any concrete information on what families could do to avoid illness.
A health sector employee said that the Ministry of Health launched an information campaign to warn the public, with the support of organizations including the Iraqi Red Crescent, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the UN International Children's Emergency Fund that did not reach all residents, only those already sick or caring for the sick. The campaign included posters and flyers that were put up in hospitals warning residents of the risks of contaminated water and instructions on basic cholera prevention techniques.
One aid worker said that in their effort to provide guidance to the public on steps to prevent cholera, they were instructing people to wash their hands, knowing full well that washing one’s hands might represent a further source of contamination.
He and one other Basra resident said the Ministry of Health did engage in a public campaign and they both received text messages from the ministry calling on people to only use water from trusted sources. The messages did not include any emergency contact, hotline number, social media page, or website link for people to obtain more information on the risks or mitigating measures.
Raja Kathim from Abu al-Khasib whose daughter fell ill said she did eventually get a text message from the Ministry of Health. “The message said something like ‘Be careful of polluted water.’ It did not include any details on how to obtain safe water, a link to a website for more information, or a hotline number we could call if we had questions or if someone we knew fell sick,” she recalled. Most of the other individuals interviewed for the report do not remember receiving any text messages or seeing any other information from local or federal authorities.
Local experts were critical of this response, and in one case, Dr. Shukri al-Hassan, a marine science lecturer at Basra University, argued that once doctors saw there was a clustering of cases, the ministry should have been warning families not to use the tap water at all in areas linked to treatment plants getting much of their water from the Shatt al-Arab.
Since last summer, authorities have yet to communicate anything conclusive about the causes of the crisis, and what steps they have taken to avoid further crises in the future. Different government agencies took water samples for testing but all said their findings were confidential. Ahmed Hanoon, head of the Environment Department in Basra, said based on the results of the water samples his department took, he concluded that the high rates of sewage coupled with ineffective water treatment at plants led to people getting sick. However, he said he was not allowed to share any of the data from water samples tested with Human Rights Watch, which had not been made public.
Outside of Iraq, the World Health Organization carried out testing of samples its team collected at multiple sites in Basra and authored a report based on their findings. However, government and UN employees informed Human Rights Watch that the report was the property of the Ministry of Health and as such the agency did not have the right to share it. The government has kept the report confidential.
Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, Deputy Governor of Basra, said that the report that Nahrain University produced based on its analysis of water samples taken during the crisis had also been classified as confidential and was not allowed to be made public. He shared with Human Rights Watch a press release issued by his office on December 9, the only public statement of its kind, summarizing the university’s findings but without providing much detail into the water sample data.
Failure to Properly Investigate
The government was quick to investigate and rule out cholera as the root of illness, after testing stool samples from patients. Dr. Adham Rashad Ismail, Acting World Health Organization Representative, said that the hospitals were able to rule out cholera. They found some cases of E. coli in the samples but that the number of cases was not above normal rates.
However, Basra water sector authorities did not at any point conduct a mapping of the illness hotspots and then subsequently isolate the water in pipes in that area from other neighborhoods to prevent further spread of illness. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, officials did nothing to try to identify locations, food consumed, water sources, or any other common characteristics between the patients, which is standard in disease outbreak investigations and what they should have done.
The government’s response to the Basra water crisis was in stark contrast to another event in late 2018, when millions of farmed carp in al-Musayab district in Babil governorate were found dead. In the latter case Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi deemed it a national security issue and immediately assembled a crisis team to investigate and take appropriate remedial measures. The team concluded that the death was caused by a lethal disease, Koi Herpes Virus, not pollution, and issued a public and detailed statement outlining their findings.
Other Contributing Factors
Other factors contributing to Basra’s water crisis included reduced flow rates in the rivers due to upstream damming within Iraq, agricultural developments and damming in Iran and potentially damming in Turkey and lower rainfall in recent decades, likely a result of climate change, without policies in place to mitigate impact.
A team of engineers estimated that the quantity of water in Iraq’s rivers that flowed into Iraq from neighboring countries was historically between 92 and 98 percent, but as of 2018 was about 82 percent.
Damming in Turkey
The effects of Turkish damming on the lessening of waterflow into Iraq and ultimately affecting Basra is difficult to determine for various reasons including because the Euphrates runs first through Syria and then through several upstream dams once inside Iraq. Similarly, the Tigris river is dammed inside Iraq upstream from Basra.
The Southeastern Anatolia Project, or Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi (GAP), is one of the largest river basin development projects in the world. Historical satellite imagery analysis conducted by Human Rights Watch demonstrates that the GAP resulted in the construction of over 20 dams in the Euphrates catchment basin since the late 1980s, including the Ataturk dam (1992) and the Alpaslan-1 Baraji dam (2009). Construction continued through 2015. Imagery demonstrates that this massive system of hydroelectric dams has had a substantial impact on downstream water flow into Syria and Iraq, however because of the lack of Syrian river gauge data, and specifically at the al-Tabqa dam, it is very difficult to assess what the historic impact on downstream water flow into Basra has been.
The Ilısu dam, the largest planned within GAP, is located on the Tigris river in southeast Turkey and might also impact annual inflows to the Tigris in Iraq. Since 2016, Turkish and Iraqi officials have been negotiating Turkey’s plans to fill the Ilısu dam, with experts predicting greater declines in annual inflows to the Tigris once the Ilısu dam is filled. The Ilısu dam remained empty through March 2019 but by April 2019, because of high snow melt and rainfall, the dam began to fill up, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcing that it would be filled in June 2019. In order for it to function as a hydroelectric dam though, it has to allow for water to flow downstream in a regulated manner.
Within the water catchment basin of the Tigris River in Turkey, GAP-related dam construction beyond the Ilısu dam is currently ongoing. A total of nine dams have already been constructed for GAP since 1997, six of which, including the Ilısu, were constructed since 2011, satellite imagery shows. In addition, satellite imagery analysis conducted by Human Rights Watch demonstrates there are at least six new dams currently under construction and likely to be operational by 2020, and a seventh new dam in Cizre is planned.
Satellite imagery shows that there are also two new dams on the Zab river in Turkey that became operational in November 2018, which will likely impact downstream flow into the Tigris south of Mosul.
In January 2019, Turkey appointed former Forestry and Water Affairs Minister Prof. Veysel Eroğlu as a special representative responsible for addressing Iraqi water issues.
Agricultural Developments in Iran
Iranian hydroelectric damming activity linked to agricultural developments in three major river basins since the late 1990s has likely had a significant negative impact on the water flow into the Tigris River upstream from Basra and downstream into the Shatt al-Arab. Historical satellite imagery analysis conducted by Human Rights Watch demonstrates that until 1997, within the catchment basin of the Sirwan river, which flows south into the Iraqi Hamrin Dam, there were only two functioning dams. Since 1997 however, twelve new dams have been constructed, nine of which have been constructed since 2011 with one becoming operational in 2019, satellite imagery demonstrates.
Imagery shows that in the catchment basin of the Karkh River, no dams existed until 2001, when the first and largest dam was constructed. Then, between 2011 and 2017, five additional dams were constructed further upstream. In the Karun river basin, imagery shows that as of 2001 there were four dams in operation. Between 2002 and 2013, a further eight dams were constructed, most notably the Upper Gotvand dam in 2012. Dr. Dhurgham al-Ajwady, the Deputy Governor of Basra, said that until the dams along the Karun river were built, 75 percent of Basra’s water consumption came from water originating from the Karun and flowing into the Shatt al-Arab.
Iraqi officials highlighted the negative impact of the hydroelectric dams in Iran on waterflow into the Shatt al-Arab, however it is likely that the impact of the Iranian agricultural developments is as important, if not more so, to lessening waterflow than the dams themselves. In addition to the rapid construction of the hydroelectric dams, historic satellite imagery analyzed reveals a substantial expansion in the area of land allocated for water-intensive sugar plantations and fish farming over a 25-year period. Imagery shows that the water consumption by the Iranian sugar industry in this area has had a substantial impact on falling water flow into the Shatt al-Arab. Starting in the mid-1990s, sugar plantations started to expand in the Shush region, where the Karkh and Karun approach each other, and this rapidly accelerated through the early 2000s, with new plantations developed further south along the rivers.
Imagery shows that between 2000 and 2009 three large sugar plantations and a fish farm were developed south of the town of Ahvaz, measuring over 100,000 hectares in total area.
Feeding these plantations is an elaborate network of several thousand kilometers of surface canals and dozens of pumping stations that actively draw water from of the Karkh and Karun, according to the imagery analyzed. While Human Rights Watch is not able to quantify the water consumption, it is clear from the scale and intensity of water diversion for commercial sugar cultivation as visible in satellite imagery that the overall impact on water flow reduction into the Shatt al-Arab has been substantial.
In addition, satellite imagery shows a notable vegetation increase since 2001 along both banks of the Dez and Karun river in Iran; downstream from the Dez dam and Upper Gotvand dam respectively. Apart from major sugar cane plantations, imagery shows a proliferation of fish farms and other agricultural plantations along the last approximately 80 km of the Karun river before it flows into the Shatt al-Arab in Iraq. Before arriving at Shatt al-Arab, the Karun river flows into its main estuary, the Bahmanshir river, parallel to Shatt al-Arab and inside Iran. Between 2000 and 2017, imagery shows an increase of cultivated areas along the Iranian Bahmanshir river and in sharp contrast, shows a decrease of cultivated land on the right bank of the Shatt al-Arab river, after its junction with the Karun river, in Iraq.
Additionally, satellite imagery shows a canal constructed from 1991-2000 that is now operational and runs parallel to the Karun river in Iran. This canal is diverting water from the Karun river, feeding it into the Bahmanshir. Since 2000, imagery shows a proliferation of crops and fish farms on both sides of the canal.
Compounding the many challenges facing Basra’s waterflow, climate change threatens to deteriorate water quality and decrease quantity. Iraq is one of the region’s countries that is considered most vulnerable to climate change. It is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, with temperature increases leading to evaporation, declining precipitation, and changing weather patterns contributing to water shortages. The catchment areas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are also experiencing diminishing rainfall. Low rainfall has impacted the water quality of the rivers, making the shallower waters more prone to pollution from wastewater and the petroleum industry. Research shows that frequent droughts and a decline in precipitation, leading to greater evaporation and water shortages, have intensified salinization in the Shatt al-Arab. Higher temperatures also increase the likelihood of harmful algal blooms.
According to experts, scarcity of fresh water and the rise in the sea level in Iraq will likely increase over time as a result of climate change. Experts predict that most of Iraq is likely to experience a reduction in annual mean precipitation with an increase in intensity of precipitation, higher temperatures, intense heat waves, a decrease in runoff and sea level rise in the Persian Gulf. Saline levels are also projected to increase with future sea level rise. Water scarcity, pollution, and higher temperatures have been associated with the spread of epidemics, such as cholera.
Ahead of the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Iraq submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), a national climate change action plan, in November 2015. More than two years after the entry into force of the Paris Agreement, Iraq is one of only a dozen countries that have not ratified it. As a result, Iraq has not submitted its Nationally Determined Contributions to update its INDC. However, in May 2019, Iraq’s Council of Ministers recommended that the Parliament pass a bill ratifying the Paris Agreement.
In the INDC, the Iraqi government committed to establishing a specialized center for climate change which would draw up strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change in the country. It included a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent between 2020 and 2035. The document lays out a range of commitments to improve water quality and quantity in light of expected changes due to climate change.
In line with a desire to better manage its water resources, the INDC detailed a range of measures aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change including to rehabilitate several key dams and construct new ones, to improve flood control systems, and to better monitor water consumption including through meters. It also committed to extracting more water from underground resources. To increase the quantity of available drinking water, the government committed to increasing public water treatment capacities to treat 6.4 billion m3/year of water per year by 2035, in line with the population’s growing consumption rates.
As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, the government has yet to establish a climate change center or to start implement any of the other INDC commitments in a dedicated manner. The INDC did not outline any commitments around better oversight of pollutants in the water or broader environment, of the private water sector, or of illegal water usage like illegal water tapping of pipes and canals. It also fails to discuss the importance of realizing the right to water for marginalized communities, such as people living in informal housing settlements.
Iraq has ratified numerous human rights treaties that contain obligations related to the right to water, sanitation, and health, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The Iraqi constitution guarantees every individual “the right to live in safe environmental conditions” and obliges the state to “undertake the protection and preservation of the environment and its biological diversity.” It outlines the federal government’s obligation to implement “policies relating to water sources from outside Iraq and guaranteeing the rate of water flow to Iraq and its just distribution inside Iraq in accordance with international laws and conventions.” It also obliges federal and local authorities to “formulate environmental policy to ensure the protection of the environment from pollution and to preserve its cleanliness, in cooperation with the regions and governorates that are not organized in a region,” and to “formulate and regulate the internal water resources policy in a way that guarantees their just distribution.”
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which monitors governments’ compliance with the ICESCR, noted in 2015 concerns around Iraq’s respect of the right to water, including for families living in informal housing settlements, and shortages of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. It recommended that Iraq, “in cooperation with neighbouring countries, intensify efforts to conclude agreements concerning the fair and equitable use of the river courses within its territory. The Committee also recommended that Iraq develop a human-rights-based strategy on drought preparedness, taking into consideration the National Drought Management Policy Guidelines of 2014, and take effective steps, other than compensation for farmers, to assist those most affected by drought. Furthermore, the Committee recommended that Iraq take preventive measures to control and stop the spread of diarrhea and cholera, including by providing vaccinations and information on basic sanitation procedures.
Right to Water
The right to water entitles everyone, without discrimination, “to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” Various resolutions from the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council affirm that the right to safe drinking water is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. The right to an adequate standard of living is enshrined in human rights instruments ratified by Iraq, such as the ICESCR, CEDAW, CRPD, and the CRC.
The CESCR, in its General Comment 15 on the right to water, noted that an aspect of the core content of the right to water is that water required for personal or domestic use must be safe. This means it must be free from microbes and parasites, chemical substances, and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health.
The committee also stated that a “violation of the obligation to fulfill” the right to water can occur when there is “insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources which results in the non-enjoyment of the right to health by individuals or groups.”
The UN special rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation has also noted that in situations of emergency, states “have an obligation to provide culturally appropriate services directly.” She also noted that violations of the right to water may result from a failure to act, to implement comprehensive plans and strategies to ensure full realization of the rights in the long term, to regulate non-state actors, and as an unintended consequence of policies, programs, and other measures.
The state also has an obligation to:
prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to water. Third parties include individuals, groups, corporations and other entities as well as agents acting under their authority. The obligation includes, inter alia, adopting the necessary and effective legislative and other measures to restrain, for example, third parties from denying equal access to adequate water; and polluting and inequitably extracting from water resources, including natural sources, wells and other water distribution systems.
Where water services (such as piped water networks, water tankers, access to rivers and wells) are operated or controlled by third parties, States parties must prevent them from compromising equal, affordable, and physical access to sufficient, safe and acceptable water. To prevent such abuses an effective regulatory system must be established, in conformity with the Covenant and this general comment, which includes independent monitoring, genuine public participation and imposition of penalties for noncompliance.
Facing a water crisis that is largely unaddressed, and almost certain to get worse, local and federal authorities should meet Iraq’s obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to water:
The Obligation to Respect
The obligation to respect requires states to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of the right to water. For example, states should refrain from polluting water resources or arbitrarily and illegally disconnecting water and sanitation services.
The Obligation to Protect
The obligation to protect requires states to prevent third parties from interfering with the right to water. States should adopt and enforce legislation to ensure that private actors—such as private water purification or reverse osmosis plants and water truckers—comply with human rights standards related to the right to water.
The Obligation to Fulfil
The obligation to fulfil requires states to adopt appropriate legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial, promotional, and other measures to fully realize the right to water. States must, among other things, adopt a national policy on water that: gives priority in water management to essential personal and domestic uses; defines the objectives for the extension of water services, with a focus on disadvantaged and marginalized groups; considers the current and projected impacts of climate change on its planning; identifies the resources available to meet these goals; specifies the most cost-effective way of using them; outlines the responsibilities and time frame for implementing the measures; and monitors results and outcomes, including ensuring adequate remedies for violations.
Right to Sanitation
The right to sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to “have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.” As with the right to water, the right to sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living.
The UN special rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation has stated that states should “ensure that the management of human excreta does not negatively impact on human rights.”
Rights to Health and Healthy Environment
The right to the highest attainable standard of health is found in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in international treaties binding upon Iraq, including the ICESCR and the CRC.
The CESCR, in its General Comment 14 on the right to health, has interpreted the ICESCR to include:
[T]he requirement to ensure an adequate supply of safe and potable water and basic sanitation [and] the prevention and reduction of the population’s exposure to harmful substances such as radiation and harmful chemicals or other detrimental environmental conditions that directly or indirectly impact upon human health.
The CESCR has stated that a “violation of the obligation to fulfill” the right to health can occur when there is “insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources which results in the non-enjoyment of the right to health by individuals or groups.”
The right to health encompasses the right to healthy natural environments. The right to a healthy environment involves the obligation to “prevent threats to health from unsafe and toxic water conditions.” The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment’s Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, which interpret the right to a healthy environment, provide that states “should respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in relation to environmental matters.” The Principles also emphasize the need for “public access to environmental information by collecting and disseminating information and by providing affordable, effective and timely access to information to any person upon request.”
Right to Property
The right to own property is found in article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government has an obligation to take measures to protect the rights of farmers to their land and crops, including by mitigating against factors that will prevent farmers from being able to fulfill this right include damage to property through government policies. Iraq’s constitution protects the right to private property and secures “the right to benefit, exploit and dispose of private property within the limits of the law.”
Right to Information
The CESCR, in its General Comment 15 on the right to water, has noted that a core obligation of states under the right to water is that individuals have the right to seek, receive, and impart information concerning water issues. The CESCR has also noted that “[i]ndividuals and groups should be given full and equal access to information concerning water, water services and the environment, held by public authorities or third parties.”
The CESCR, in the General Comment 14 on the right to health, has stated that a “core obligation” of states under the right to the highest attainable standard of health is:
To provide education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.
According to the local and international experts on water quality in Iraq, because of increasing water scarcity exacerbated by climate change, continued pollution of Iraq’s waterways, and the excessive use of water by households, agriculture, and industry in Iraq, Basra will suffer from acute water crises in coming years in the absence of strategic solutions. Given the governments’ obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of Basra residents including their rights to water, health, and a healthy environment, authorities at the local and federal level should engage seriously in approaches to solving the long-term challenges facing Basra’s water sector in order to fulfill their obligations to provide residents with access to safe water and sanitation, as well as water for irrigation, and to protect their rights to health, healthy environment, education, and prevent further potential displacement.
Local and federal authorities at all levels should acknowledge the right to water as well as their obligations to ensure sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable safe drinking water immediately for all and to grant victims of violations access to an effective remedy against those responsible. Such remedies should include urgent action when access to potable water and sanitation is cut off. Individuals, as well as state regulators, should have access to meaningful complaint local mechanisms and judicial enforcement should they exhaust local mechanisms.
Through its research into the violations outlined throughout the report, Human Rights Watch came across a range of options being proposed by international and local engineers to address Basra’s water challenges in a more long-term, holistic, and effective way. While the experts cited advantages and disadvantages to each of the proposals, they all emphasized that before the authorities invest in any of them, they conduct a comprehensive study to determine which single solution or basket of solutions will serve Basra best in the long-term.
Given the complexity of the issue facing Basra, Human Rights Watch recommends that federal and local authorities form an inter-jurisdictional independent task force that assesses failures that led to the 2018 health crisis in Basra, acute and long-term problems facing water for people and for agriculture in Basra and the surrounding areas, regulatory and monitoring gaps, public and private sector negligence, illegal water diversion, and projected climate change impacts among other topics. The task force should conduct its assessment with opportunity for broad participation.
The task force should have clear terms of reference that include fulfilling the following tasks (and even if such a task force is not created the local and federal authorities should find a way to fulfil these tasks anyway):
- Review the findings of the reports commissioned during the health crisis of 2018 and asses the adequacy of measures taken in response;
- Make public the findings of the reports commissioned during the health crisis of 2018 and share publicly all the measures taken to ensure that in the long-term authorities are working to prevent water crises;
- Review all existing water strategies for the management of water resources, particularly in the Tigris and Shatt al-Arab and determine the adequacy of current implementation;
- Analyze current climate data for the region and their projected impacts on water quantity and quality;
- Consider all legal and regulatory regimes governing water in Basra and assess their level of implementation;
- Investigate potential sources of environmental contamination, including the evidence HRW collected regarding the oil spill near the Nahr Bin Umar oil and gas field from July 15-25, 2018;
- Assess the region’s vulnerability to harmful algal blooms;
- Provide clear steps for authorities to implement previously agreed upon multi-decade water strategies or develop a new strategy that focuses on the overarching need for the Shatt al-Arab to improve its flow and health;
- Ensure that regional negotiation efforts lead to the development of a framework that secures the equitable sharing and distribution of water resources between Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria;
- Ensure that local negotiation efforts lead to the development of a framework that secures the equitable sharing and distribution of water resources within Iraq;
- Lay out more clearly which authorities have the responsibility to crack down on illegal water tapping and regulate the registration, testing, and sanctioning of private water plants and water truckers. Baghdad authorities should hold local officials accountable if they fail in their responsibilities;
- Investigate instances where there are credible allegations that authorities have accepted bribes in exchange for ignoring violations of water-related laws or in the context of water-related infrastructure projects and identify which authority should act to address malfeasance;
- Provide guidance on the content of a campaign national authorities should launch to educate Iraqis about responsible use of water and water-saving techniques in an aim to change local water habits. The campaign should not be limited to affected areas in Basra and span the whole country with suggestions on household-level mechanisms to better monitor usage. The campaign should ensure that it includes measures to avoid disproportionately impacting poorer and marginalized communities;
- Provide clear and actionable recommendations for the establishment of a public health advisory system that provides clear levels of drinking water advisories, including preemptive advisories, delineation of responsibility, protocol for putting an advisory in place and lifting it, and clear communication on steps individuals should take to mitigate risk;
- Ensure that all residents without access to adequate safe water have an effective remedy against those responsible for failure to ensure such access. This should include effective local complaint mechanisms that are administrative or quasi-judicial, as well as judicial mechanisms when these mechanisms are exhausted. Such remedies should include urgent action when access to potable water and sanitation is cut off;
- Ensure that in the advent of a new crisis, authorities understand and are accountable to taking steps to minimize the financial and other burdens of the most impacted and marginalized populations and to ensure their access to water; and
- Before proceeding with recommendations on any further major engineering works, bring in a team of engineering experts to conduct a thorough study of the water problems in southern Iraq, that includes both a study of the quality and quantity of water available and needed, the state of the public treatment plants and delivery network, as well as current and projected impacts of climate change on water quantity and quality. Only after such a study should authorities agree on a strategy that may involve increasing water resources through desalination plants and may involve considerable investment into rehabilitating Basra’s public water plants and piping network and sealing the Bada’a and Ktaiban canals. Authorities at all levels should commit to ensuring that they police corruption around such projects with vigilance to avoid such practices from hammering project completion.
Once the authorities develop a strategy, they should ensure proper and responsible financing, management, oversight, and regulation of the strategy, and enforcement of environmental standards.
In the view of the international engineers and water experts consulted, the priority of such a task force should be better management of the flow of water into the Shatt al-Arab to avoid seawater intrusion, minimize pollution, and ensure that the open canals providing water to Basra are converted into closed piping to avoid water loss and pollutants. A team of international engineers proposed various solutions, including in the short term if a new crisis looms, for Iraq to rent a fleet of modular floating desalination plants that could be constructed abroad and deployed to Iraq within three months, thus avoiding some of the pitfalls that caused almost a decade of delays in the construction of the Great Basra Water Project. However, they cautioned that adequate study is needed before any engineering works begin. “If they refuse to take the time to get a proper study done, all that will happen is that they will spend lots of money on quick fix construction, but then will face the exact same situation a few years from now,” the head of the team concluded. He said that the study, and then the implementation of an agreed-upon strategy would take several years to implement, and that authorities need to start the process now in order to stave off a crisis in several years’ time.
Additional recommendations include the following:
- Ratify the Paris Agreement to ensure that Nationally Determined Contributions are updated to respond to the impacts of the water crisis on marginalized populations in light of the projected impacts of climate change and to realize their right to water in adaptation planning.
- Ratify the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal and the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes in line with recommendations made by the Council of Ministers to parliament on May 21, 2019.
For All Authorities Linked to Water Storage, Treatment, and Delivery
- Ensure that the government starts implementing its commitments made in the November 2015 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) linked to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, including regarding increased water and sewage treatment, improved water storage and piping infrastructure, and changes to agricultural practice; and
- Address the challenges in the supply chain and regulation of chlorine supplies to ensure all water authorities have consistent access to necessary supplies.
For the Basra Water Department within the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works
- Ensure that Basra’s central laboratory has the appropriate equipment to test for all harmful biological and chemical substances in the water, including heavy metals and harmful algal blooms in both fresh water and sea water;
- Set up effective sources of public information to allow the laboratory to share publicly and with affected communities the results of its tests, as well as an effective public health advisory system to inform the public about any negative testing results, consistent with the recommendations of the task force; and
- In the event of a future crisis, conduct a mapping throughout Basra to identify whether certain neighborhoods are more affected, and then isolate the water in the pipes in those neighborhoods from others, so as to prevent the further spread of illness.
For the Ministry of Health
- In advance of the next crisis, set up appropriate websites, social media networks, hotlines, and other avenues to provide people with information in the event of another crisis and to instruct all households to store bleach at home which they can use to disinfect their water and stockpile the necessary medications to ensure that hospitals have sufficient supply;
- Ensure that no one in acute need is turned away from care;
- Implement Basra authorities’ decision from July 2, 2019 requiring all water truckers to obtain the correct licenses and obliging relevant authorities to more effectively crack down on water trucks operating illegally. Develop tighter regulations around regular inspections and licensing enforcements of water truckers and strengthen methods to prevent truckers from transporting different types of water (for construction, irrigation, household use, or drinking) within the same period including by conducting more rigorous testing of water loads or requiring certification of load content; and
- Investigate potential sources of environmental contamination including oil spills, harmful algal blooms, raw sewage, and garbage in waterways.
For the Basra Traffic Police
- Pull over and check the licenses of more water truck drivers.
For the Basra Water and Sewage Departments within the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works
- Ensure that all residents of Basra living in informal settlements are added to the water and sewage network, including by officially registering their settlements as residential, by finding families formal housing alternatives that are connected to water and sewage networks, or by providing septic tanks so as to ensure proper storage and disposal of sewage.
For the Council of Ministers
- Improve the tax policies to encourage importing crops best suited for import because of water usage or irrigation method and encourage the growth of crops that are less water intensive and salt-tolerant varieties.
For the Ministry of Agriculture
- Ensure compensation for farmers with losses from the 2018 crisis, as well as for longer term losses; and
- Finance schemes for farmers to change their irrigation methods and change their crops from conventional to non-conventional ones. Consider incentives to encourage farmers to stop growing water-intensive and economically unsound crops like wheat and rice.
For the Ministries of Water Resources and Agriculture
- Develop a national water management policy that takes into account the country’s depletion in water resources, reduction in water flow from neighboring countries, projected climate change impacts and incorporates sustainable agricultural practices.
For the Ministry of the Environment
- Investigate potential sources of environmental contamination including oil spills, harmful algal blooms, raw sewage, and garbage in waterways; and
- Upon ratification of the Paris Agreement, ensure that the updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) respond more specifically to the impacts the water crisis on marginalized populations and the need to realize their right to water in light of the projected impacts of climate change. Also ensure that the NDC contains plans on how to monitor and control pollutants or algal bloom in the water or broader environment, enforcement of environmental laws with the private water sector, and prevention of illegal water usage like illegal water tapping of pipes and canals.
For All Law Enforcement Authorities
- In order to ensure that protesters in Basra do not face unlawful limitations on their right to right to free expression and peaceful assembly, ensure that Iraqi security forces engaged in law enforcement duties strictly abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and credibly, impartially, and transparently investigate the use of force by the security forces in the Basra Governorate. Security force members, including commanders, responsible for the unlawful use of excessive or lethal force should be disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate.
- In light of Iraq’s standing invitation to all thematic special procedures, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment should conduct visits to Iraq, including to Basra.
Recommendation for Iranian, Turkish and Syrian Authorities
- Ensure that local damming and agricultural developments do not interfere with the equitable sharing and distribution of water resources into Iraq and take efforts to mitigate the effects of water losses stemming from both damming and agriculture in neighboring countries.
Recommendations for Donor Governments
- Provide support and facilitate regional dialogues that work towards developing a framework for an equitable sharing and distribution of water resources between countries in the region;
- Support long term efforts by the Iraqi government to improve water infrastructure by providing technical/financial support to the relevant Iraqi ministries;
- Operate transparently, including by publishing detailed reports on the disbursement of project funds related to the Iraqi water sector and publicly identifying reasons for significant project delays;
- Help ensure that Basra’s central laboratory has sufficient equipment to test for all harmful biological and chemical substances in the water, including heavy metals and algal blooms;
- Help the Ministry of Health to develop a platform to provide people with information in the event of another crisis; and
- Support UN agencies and NGOs to address immediate humanitarian needs and prevent spread of water-borne diseases.
Recommendations for JICA
- Publish a realistic and detailed timeline for the Basra Great Water Project and associated costs. Hold contractors accountable to these timelines unless there is a compelling justification for delay; and
- Investigate independently and jointly with Iraqi authorities credible allegations of corruption linked to the Great Basra Water Project, including to delays in the completion of the project and the increase in costs.
Recommendations for Development and Humanitarian Actors
- Work in coordination with Iraq’s public and private sector to improve the quality and quantity of water supply and expand the water network to all Basra residents;
- Operate transparently, including by publishing detailed reports on the disbursement of project funds and publicly identifying reasons for significant project delays;
- Work with public and private authorities to ensure access to affordable and safe drinking water. This should include working to decrease costs and safe drinking water prices, particularly in marginalized neighborhoods, through cross-subsidies or other methods of guaranteeing affordability;
- Support livelihoods programming in areas where agricultural livelihoods has been affected due to lack of alternative water sources, consistent with what affected individuals identify as key support required;
- Provide farmers with agricultural inputs such as seeds, tools, fertilizers, pesticides and greenhouses with drip irrigation kits for vegetable production, as well as training in the necessary skills to use the inputs provided; and
- Conduct an assessment of current humanitarian needs and design interventions to address, through an integrated program approach:
- An immediate water, sanitation, and hygiene response to prevent the possible spread of water-borne diseases, potentially using schools as an entry point.
- An immediate and targeted cash transfers program to vulnerable households to ensure affordable clean water and prevent potential spread of illnesses in the short term.
- Partnership with and support local civil society organizations already operational in Basra, including through direct funding partnerships, to identify and better reach households most at risk from unsafe water.
This report was researched and written by Belkis Wille, a senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division. Josh Lyons and Carolina Jordá Álvarez provided geospatial analysis assistance.
Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director, edited the report. Human Rights Watch researchers Amanda Klasing, Sarah Saadoun, Bill van Esveld, Emma Sinclair-Webb, Tara Sepehri Far, and Katharina Rall provided specialist review. Joe Amon, clinical professor in the Department of Community Health and Prevention at Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health, also provided specialist review. Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor, provided legal review. Tom Porteous, deputy program director, provided programmatic review.
The senior associate of the Middle East and North Africa division (who wished to remain anonymous) and Middle East and North Africa coordinator, Diana Naoum, provided production and finalization assistance. Senior coordinator, Jose Martinez, and administrative manager, Fitzroy Hepkins, prepared the report for publication.
Human Rights Watch interns, Layal Al Essa and Sharaf Hussein, provided research assistance as well as administrative and other support.
A special thank you to Beth Hoagland, hydrogeochemist, and Ed Brown,
Professor Emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa, for their support and expertise, and the many Iraqi water experts who shared their time and expertise.