11 July 2020
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Basra’s hopes are pinned on Kadhimi to fight corruption, provide clean water

Thursday, 04 June 2020 20:39
An employee collects a water sample from at Al-buradieiah Water Treatment Plant on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab in Basra, Iraq. (Reuters) An employee collects a water sample from at Al-buradieiah Water Treatment Plant on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab in Basra, Iraq. (Reuters)

Each successive government has made bold promises to urgently address the city’s water and sanitation problems but none of them have come true.

BASRA, IRAQ--The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will soon face a test that all governments since 2003 have failed: Bringing clean drinking water to the people of Basra, Iraq’s wealthiest oil city.

Basra lies on Shatt Al-Arab, which stretches into the Arabian Gulf and is only 600km to the south of the capital. Even though it hosts four giant oil fields and sits on 60% of Iraq’s oil wealth, it has shabby infrastructure and is full of slums. The majority of Basra’s inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Despite the city’s oil fortune, people of Basra enjoy very few advantages. Rather than benefiting the city, the oil wealth has turned into a curse for its inhabitants.

During the protests that started in October last year, thousands of city inhabitants assembled in front of the Basra Governorate Administration Building and, like their fellow demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, demanded that the government provide basic services and reforms such as health care, reliable electrical power supply and an end to chronic corruption, unemployment and Iranian interference in their city’s affairs. Most of all, they insisted on their basic human right to safe drinking water, which they have long been without.

When Kadhimi was nominated for the premiership, Basra’s inhabitants defied the coronavirus curfew and took to the streets on May 12 to protest against him.

Their disillusionment comes after years of failed promises from successive government administrations.

Year after year of protests, the anger of the people of Basra against the “government of thieves,” as they have referred to each Iraqi government, has been met with a stream of unfulfilled promises, while the “thieves” of the ruling elite have continued to plunder the country’s wealth and theirs. Each successive government has made bold promises to urgently address the city’s water and sanitation problems but none of them have come true.

Of course Basra’s inhabitants have always had the option of buying bottled water or of filtering tank water but many households in the city cannot afford these luxuries and have to instead rely on the city’s supply of highly polluted water.

In the words of journalist Azhar al-Rubaie, “local and central governments do not unfortunately implement effective strategies to improve living conditions in Basra, which is why the latter keep getting worse year after year.”

In a city that was once referred to as the “Venice of the Middle East,” Basra’s canals and Shatt El-Arab have become covered with a layer of industrial, agricultural and human waste. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report, “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.”

The report pointed to what it called a “full-blown crisis” in the summer of 2018, when nearly 120,000 people were hospitalised as a result of drinking water contaminated with algal blooms, faecal matter and other pollutants. Symptoms included diarrhoea, vomiting, rash and scabies. The crisis confused hospital workers, who had to contend with a tremendous influx of patients with limited medical supplies.

Nearly two years later, nothing has changed. The water remains heavily polluted. Pictures taken by the Norwegian Refugee Council show Basra’s waterways clogged with rubbish and debris. Shatt al-Arab too, which partly goes through Basra, is seen filled with algae, oil waste and silt, essentially due to the stream of waste coming from neighbouring Iran.

Basra’s inhabitants living next to the canals say the stench is so strong it causes headaches and nausea.

Basra residents are demanding an improvement in the health system, which was already devastated by years of corruption and mismanagement after Iran-backed militias took over infrastructure deals and failed to complete them.

Successive governments in Baghdad have failed to deal with the health and water crisis, setting their priorities elsewhere. According to data from the World Health Organisation, the government disbursed only 2.5% of the state’s $106.5 billion budget to the Ministry of Health, while security forces got 18% and the Ministry of Oil 13.5% in 2019.

With regard to budgets, unemployment in Basra remains a major problem, as is the case in all parts of the country. Although the official rate is 7.9%, youth unemployment reaches more than three times that level.

Compounding the injustice felt by the people of Basra, oil companies operating in the area are supposed to mainly employ locals. But Rubaie said most employees come from outside the city and the state. “University graduates from Basra Governorate will only get jobs only if their parents have strong links with the government,” he said.

Basrians are forced to live and deal with the high unemployment and difficult economic conditions because of rampant government corruption. They expect Kadhimi to move swiftly and adopt reforms and effective plans to tackle corruption and bring guilty heads in state institutions and militias to justice.

If the battle against corruption moves forward, Basrians can hope to one day have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. They also demand that Kadhimi’s government focus on improving health care in Basra and award jobs based on merit, not connections.

Source: Arab Weekly


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