How to tackle Basra’s water problems

Iraqi governments have failed to provide safe, drinkable water to much of the population. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2019

How to tackle Basra’s water problems

  • Iraqi city’s unsafe water causes water-borne disease outbreaks and economic hardship
  • A HRW study says pollution, mismanagement and corruption lie at the root of the water problems

DUBAI: It was dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” for its network of waterways that invited comparisons to the Italian city. But Basra is today emblematic of almost everything that is wrong with Iraq. Few maladies, though, reflect the depth of the rot in the country’s system like the port city’s acute water crisis.

Situated where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers merge near the Gulf at Iraq’s southern tip, Basra is home to 2.5 million people but lacks an effective water treatment system. Be it the Shatt Al-Arab River or the canals, Basra’s water resources have fallen victim to “decades of pollution, mismanagement and corruption,” according to a recent report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The study was prompted by a creeping sense over the past two decades that the concept of human rights is not relevant to the average citizen of fragile states such as Iraq. Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher in the HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, said a desire to counter that impression inspired her to conduct the investigation.

“I wanted to emphasize to Iraqis that the issues they care about on a daily basis are human rights issues, so I was waiting to come across the right opportunity to drive home that point,” Wille said.

In Basra’s water crisis, which has blighted large expanses of southern Iraq, she found a direct connection between human rights violations and corruption. “In Iraq, no matter what their religion or ethnic identity, everyone agrees that corruption is one of the biggest problems facing the country, with deeply damaging consequences,” she said. “So I wanted to look at it from a rights perspective.”

In the 1960s, Basra had an advanced sanitary infrastructure, but for almost 30 years, governments have failed to provide safe, drinkable water to much of the population. Tempers flared in the summer of last year when water-borne disease outbreaks led to the hospitalization of tens of thousands of residents. Protests erupted in the city once against this summer as anger over deteriorating services and economic hardship boiled over.

A decrease in the amount of water flowing to the Shatt Al-Arab and its canals resulted in higher levels of sewage, industrial pollution and water salinity. (AFP)

Wille says what lies at the root of Basra’s chronic water crisis is not one but a number of different factors: Reduced water flow, seawater intrusion, pollution and mismanagement of waterways.

“It rained and snowed a lot over Christmas and early this January, so that means the water situation across Iraq this year is theoretically better, with more water flowing through the waterways.

“This means Iraq should not have as much seawater intrusion as before, so water pollution should therefore also be reduced,” she said.

The reality of the situation is another matter.

“We know in terms of global trends of low rainfall and increasing temperatures, this means that when there is another year of low rainfall, then the crisis will be worse,” Wille said.

Until the early 1980s, Basra was a magnet for Middle Eastern tourists, but these days an estimated 338,400 residents of the city live in informal housing spread throughout the oil-rich governorate. These homes are excluded from the formal water and sanitation networks, making them water-insecure.

According to the UN, almost 4,000 individuals in the Basra governorate had to leave their homes in August 2018. This was most likely due to poor access to adequate supplies of potable water, although a causal link between the two has not been proven.

What is known is that last year, there was a decrease in the amount of water flowing to the Shatt Al-Arab and its canals from rivers upstream, which resulted in higher levels of sewage, agricultural, industrial pollution and salinity in the water.

Prior to 2018, Basra had experienced water-related health emergencies in 2009 and 2015, but, according to the HRW report, 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 to the dangers posed by poor water quality.

Iraqi ministries did cooperate with Wille’s investigation, but the report also said that the results of tests of water samples from the Shatt Al-Arab and treatment plants after the protests of 2018 summer were not made public. HRW was told by all federal and local authorities that the results and reports were confidential.

With the help of satellite imagery, Wille’s research found that two major spills had occurred in 2018 that leaked oil into the Shatt Al-Arab in central Basra. 

Again, the government did not apprise the public of the oil spills, even though many residents had complained about a gasoline smell in their tap water and some were even able to set the water aflame.

In the process, the HRW report was able to identify a glaring drawback of Iraq’s regulatory regime: The absence of a public health advisory to inform residents when drinking water is contaminated, how to reduce harm and protocols for government officials to respond to advisories and lift them.

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

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

Her next step will be to meet officials in Baghdad in September and push for the adoption of the three pages of recommendations from the HRW report. Later in the month, she intends to hold meetings with officials of European countries that may want to contribute to the amelioration of Iraq’s water situation.

“Our primary recommendation is for the establishment of an inter-ministerial body that includes local authorities,” Wille said, adding that the current arrangement “allows the federal government (in Baghdad) to blame the authorities in Basra for everything.” Although she is not sure about the political will to implement the primary recommendation, Wille is not giving up hope. “The creation of such a body would be the first step towards implementing the report’s recommendations,” she said. “At the moment, even if the government adopts them, it does not have the buy-in to implement them.”

After years of occupation, sectarian strife, misrule and underinvestment, few expect Basra to regain its fabled beauty any time soon. But some tentative steps towards a resolution of the ongoing water crisis do not seem like an unreasonable demand.


Ramadan breeds dread in crisis-hit Iraq

Updated 3 min 17 sec ago

Ramadan breeds dread in crisis-hit Iraq

  • Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi had promised extra rations for the holy month
  • “Ramadan fills me with dread. We need a lot of things for the house and new clothes for the children,” says a 32-year-old civil servant

BAGHDAD: Faced with sharp price rises, a decline in the buying power of the dinar and rising unemployment, Iraqis enter the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan with a feeling of dread.
“After a whole day of fasting, we have to eat something,” even if the price of a kilo of tomatoes has more than doubled, said Umm Hussein, a single mother of five who has no salary.
She struggles each month to raise the $45 rent for their modest home.
Like 16 million of Iraq’s 40-million population living under the poverty line, Umm Hussein relies on her ration card for food.
Under the legacy from the 1990s when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was under a stringent international embargo, every Iraqi whose household heads earns less than $1,000 a month is entitled to certain basic provisions at subsidised prices.
But this year, “we’ve only received the rations for February,” said Abu Seif, 36, who like his father before him has the job of distributing bags of subsidised goods.
“We still haven’t got the rations for Ramadan,” during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, a period that starts this week.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi had promised extra rations for the holy month. But “people are coming in or calling every day to ask when they’re arriving,” said Abu Seif.
In Abu Ammar’s grocery store, the credit line has been stretched so far that he fears not being able to pay his suppliers any more.
With prices rising sharply, “some families owe more than 200,000 dinars” ($130), the grocer told AFP.
The authorities in energy-rich Iraq, with revenues slashed by the decline in world oil prices, last year devalued the dinar, which has lost 25 percent of its value against the dollar.
As a result, for example, the price for a bottle of cooking oil has gone up to 2,500 dinars, from 1,500 dinars.
On top of price hikes, Covid-19 restrictions such as lockdowns and curfews have killed jobs, especially the day jobs on which many Iraqis rely following decades of conflict.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says Iraqis are trapped in a vicious circle.
“Over 90 percent of small and medium enterprises in the food and agriculture sector reported being severely to moderately affected by the pandemic. To cope with decreased revenue, more than 50 percent either let staff go or reduced salaries,” it says.
A joke doing the rounds on Iraqi social media goes something like: “This year, salaries are in the group of death with Covid-19 and Eid Al-Fitr (the feast marking the end of Ramadan). Not sure they will make it though to the next round.”
Haider, a 32-year-old civil servant, says it’s no laughing matter.
“Ramadan fills me with dread. We need a lot of things for the house and new clothes for the children,” he said.
Even in normal times, he struggles to pay the rent, for daily expenses and electricity charges with his monthly salary of $600.
Electricity is one of the heaviest financial burdens, in a country with at times 20-hours-a-day power cuts that force Iraqis to turn to private generators that run on pricey fuel.
Abu Ahmad, a 32-year-old colleague, says he will skip the traditions this Ramadan.
“I’m not going to be giving big dinners at my place, so as not to spread Covid,” he said. “But also, because I can’t afford it.”

Iran admits nuclear plant hit by blast

Updated 6 min 47 sec ago

Iran admits nuclear plant hit by blast

  • The attack came amid diplomatic efforts by Iran and the US to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers
  • Netanyahu: I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability

JEDDAH:Iran admitted on Monday that an explosion had disabled uranium enrichment centrifuges at its flagship Natanz nuclear plant.

Officials in Tehran initially claimed that a power cut on Sunday had disrupted activities at Natanz, the center of Iran’s nuclear program, but it later emerged that Israel’s Mossad spy agency had carried out a cyberattack on the plant.

The attack came amid diplomatic efforts by Iran and the US to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, after former US President Donald Trump abandoned it three years ago and reimposed sanctions.

The Israelis “want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Monday.

“We will not fall into their trap. We will not allow this act of sabotage to affect the nuclear talks, but we will take our revenge.”

Israel and US allies in the Gulf strongly oppose restoration of the deal in its current form, without also addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional meddling through proxy militias in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after talks on Monday with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin: “I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel, and Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism.”

Sunday’s attack on Natanz came a day after Iran started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges, which are banned under the nuclear deal.

“Our nuclear experts are assessing the damage but I can assure you that Iran will replace damaged centrifuges in Natanz with advanced ones,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

Shoukry: Reducing Egypt’s water rights is a hostile act

Updated 13 April 2021

Shoukry: Reducing Egypt’s water rights is a hostile act

  • Egypt’s top diplomat urged Moscow to help settle its dispute with Ethiopia over dam project
  • Egypt and Sudan deem the dam project a threat if filled and operated without a legally binding agreement

CAIRO: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has warned that curtailing his country’s water rights would constitute a hostile act.
Shoukry referenced international law in his statements and said that the issue must be addressed through diplomatic measures and the intervention of international parties.
He highlighted the intransigence of Ethiopia, saying that the country continues to take unilateral measures outside the framework of international law.
The minister also said that Egypt was closely coordinating with Sudan in a combined effort to persuade Ethiopia to change its mind before the second filling of the dam, which Ethiopia is seeking to achieve next July.
If damage occurs, the two downstream countries will take measures to protect their national and water security and deal with any irresponsible behavior from Ethiopia, said the minister.
On the eve of his talks with his Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Cairo, Shoukry said Egypt believes that Russia will play a positive role in the Renaissance Dam issue.

Report finds drugs, negligence led to fatal Egypt train collision

Egypt has been plagued with fatal train accidents in recent years. (File/AFP)
Updated 13 April 2021

Report finds drugs, negligence led to fatal Egypt train collision

  • Two observers in the department revealed that they had violated their work duties
  • At least 20 people died and 199 were injured in the March 26 crash near Sohag in southern Egypt

CAIRO: Egypt’s Public Prosecution said that railway employees acted with gross negligence in the Sohag train accident after finding that the driver and assistant “were not present” in the cab car at the time of the collision.
It comes as the prosecution releases its report into the fatal crash, which killed 20 people and wounded 199 others.
According to a statement, the superintendent of the nearby Maragha station tower had consumed hashish before the crash, while the assistant driver of the train consumed the same drug and Tramadol, a pain medication.
The investigation revealed that the “distinguished train” (special train) had stopped before the Senussi crossing between two railway stations, Maragha and Tahta, for several minutes.
It then passed two crossings and collided with another train that had stopped.
Investigations confirmed that the head of the Central Control Department in Assiut left his workplace at the time of the accident, despite the responsibility of the department to monitor the movement of trains in the area.
Two observers in the department revealed that they had violated their work duties.
They failed to provide crucial information to either train regarding the situation on the tracks.
Despite one employee claiming that two failed attempts to contact the moving train were made, records from a telecommunications company show that no attempts were made to alert the driver.
The Public Prosecution listened to conversations recorded by communications devices at the department’s headquarters and analyzed recordings from Sohag station.
Authorities also found that the driver and assistant of the moving train had turned off the vehicle’s automatic control system just before the accident.
The assistant driver also forged a document that was intended to be signed by the driver of the train, who was not present in the cab car.
A report by Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority confirmed that the signature on the document was written by the assistant.


EU sanctions elite Iran commander over 2019 protests

Updated 12 April 2021

EU sanctions elite Iran commander over 2019 protests

  • EU has blacklisted Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful and heavily armed security force in the country
  • About 1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on Nov. 15, 2019

BRUSSELS: The European Union has imposed sanctions on eight Iranian militia commanders and police chiefs, including the head of the elite Revolutionary Guards, over a deadly crackdown in November 2019, the bloc said in its Official Journal on Monday.
The travel bans and asset freezes are the first EU sanctions on Iran for human rights abuses since 2013, as the bloc had shied away from angering Tehran in the hope of safeguarding a nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers in 2015.
Their preparation was first reported by Reuters last month.
The bloc, which also hit three Iranian prisons with asset freezes, blacklisted Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful and heavily armed security force in the Islamic Republic.
“Hossein Salami took part in the sessions that resulted in the orders to use lethal force to suppress the November 2019 protests. Hossein Salami therefore bears responsibility for serious human rights violations in Iran,” the EU said.
The three prisons sanctioned included two in the Tehran area where the EU said those detained after the 2019 protests were deliberately wounded with boiling water and denied medical treatment.
About 1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on Nov. 15, 2019, according to a toll provided to Reuters by three Iranian interior ministry officials at the time. The United Nations said the total was at least 304.
Iran has called the toll given by sources “fake news.”
Iran, which has repeatedly rejected accusations by the West of human rights abuses, dismissed the EU’s sanctions as “invalid.”
“In response, Iran suspends comprehensive talks with the EU, including human rights talks and all cooperation resulting from these talks, especially in the areas of terrorism, drugs and refugees,” Iranian media quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh as saying.
On March 9, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, presented a report saying Tehran used lethal force during the protests and chided it for failing to conduct a proper investigation or failing to hold anyone accountable.
Other individuals targeted with EU sanctions, which take effect on Monday, include members of Iran’s hard-line Basij militia, who are under the command of the Revolutionary Guards, and its head Gholamreza Soleimani.
The eight Iranians were added to an EU sanctions list for human rights abuses in Iran that was first launched in 2011 and which now numbers 89 people and four entities. It includes a ban on exports of equipment that could be used for repression.
Diplomats said the sanctions were not linked to efforts to revive the nuclear deal, which the United States pulled out of but now seeks to re-join. That deal made it harder for Iran to amass the fissile material needed for a nuclear bomb — a goal it has long denied — in return for sanctions relief.