Iraq’s southern city of Basra was once a thriving port city. In its heyday, it was described as the “Venice of the east” due to the numerous canals and bridges all over the city.
The comparisons with Venice are long gone.
Today, the situation is bleak. Basra’s canals are polluted with filth, algae and bacteria. The riverbanks are blanketed by mounds of rubbish and heaps of plastic. An air of resignation hovers in parts of the city where poverty has a firm grip and the unemployment rate is one of the highest in Iraq.
Last summer, the city was rocked by violent protests when tens of thousands of people were hospitalized after drinking contaminated water. The tragedy is that while Basra is where most of Iraq’s oil riches originate, children and vulnerable families have died of thirst.
I recently visited Basra to see what has changed since the summer of 2018 and found that, although some improvements have been made towards upgrading the city’s antiquated water and sanitation infrastructure, a lot of the underlying issues that led to the crisis have yet to be addressed.
Climate change and leaking pipes
Historically, Basra’s fresh water supply has come from the Shatt Al-Arab River which is a confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—both of which have seen a decreasing flow due to low rainfall and increased temperatures over the last couple of years as well as the construction of dams in neighboring countries.
As water levels dropped in the Shatt Al-Arab, saltwater from the Gulf of Arabia entered the river and dramatically increased the salinity levels in 2018.
In 1997, anticipating the looming water crisis and the issues around the Shatt al-Arab, the government created the al-Badaa Canal as an alternative source of fresh water. However, during the crisis last year, fresh water from this canal was not able to meet the demand. Shockingly, one reason for this was because of leaking pipes.
“A lot of the water pipes in Basra were laid out in the 1950s and have received insufficient maintenance. It’s estimated that water leakage is as high as 45 per cent of the total water supply,” UNICEF’s Water and Sanitation Specialist, Ali Risn explained.
The archaic water and sanitation infrastructure is failing to keep pace with rapid urbanization. Basra’s population has swelled to an estimated 4.6 million people, but it only has one waste treatment plant operating at 40 per cent capacity.
“The rest of Basra’s waste is dumped in the open canals which feed into the Shatt al-Arab river, further compounding the crisis,” Ali added.
Pushing vulnerable families deeper into poverty
At the peak of the crisis, vulnerable families had no choice but to buy bottled water even as they spent money on medical care for family members who had fallen sick from the contaminated water, said Zamzam, an elderly matriarch who supports a family of eleven on her widow’s pension of approximately $200 a month.
“What we have seen in Basra is heartbreaking. Vulnerable families have been pushed further into debt and poverty by spending a disproportionate amount of their income to buy drinking water. In today’s Iraq, no child should struggle to find safe drinking water,” said Hamida Lasseko, UNICEF’s Representative in Iraq.
In support of the Iraqi government, UNICEF has made significant investments in upgrading the water and sanitation infrastructure in Basra, including rehabilitating three key water treatment plants, installing new pumps in water treatment plant—doubling the facility’s capacity and bringing relief to approximately 750,000 people.
Building on previous investments, UNICEF is supplying mechanical parts that are crucial for the proper functioning of water treatment plants, rehabilitating treatment facilities to treat wastewater from Basra city center before being pumped into sewage collection network instead of rivers.
Laila Ali is a Communication Specialist with UNICEF Iraq.