Study Blames Mismanagement for Water Crisis in Southern Iraq
Government failure to maintain public water networks in southern Iraq has plunged the 3,134,000 people of Basra Governorate into a state of “water poverty,” a recently published study says.
The problem is compounded by reduced water flows due to dams built by Iran and Turkey upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, it says. The Shatt al-Arab River, which forms at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, is Basra’s main source of water.
The study, titled “Failing Flows: Water Management in Southern Iraq” and published by the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Middle East Centre, analyzed the operating mechanism and methods used to treat water in two main purification plants in Basra.
“Public water networks in Basra suffer from negligence after several years of lack of maintenance or replacement of out-of-service water units due to weak financial funding from Baghdad’s central government,” Michael Mason, director of the center and the study’s lead author, said.
“There is an urgent need to adopt an emergency policy in southern Iraq to diversify the city’s water primary sources,” he wrote in an e-mail. (See two related articles, “New Data Show Water Scarcity Is Increasing in the Arab World, Stirring Discussion” and “Land of No Rain: How Jordan Is Facing a Parched Future.”)
In the summer of 2018, protests erupted in Basra over the lack of clean water resources in southern Iraq, the study notes. By November of that year, nearly 118,000 people had visited the city’s hospitals with severe digestive problems from drinking non-potable water from the Shatt al-Arab.
Water Treatment Monitored
The research team monitored every stage of purification between the two main water treatment plants in Basra: Al-Abbas in the city center and Shuaiba in Zubair district to the south.
“There is an urgent need to adopt an emergency policy in southern Iraq to diversify the city’s water primary sources.”Michael Mason
The study’s lead author
In a phone call, Azhar al-Rubaie, a member of the research team, told Al-Fanar Media that the aim of the research was to identify the causes of the decline in water governance.
During the six-month monitoring and follow-up phase, al-Rubaie met with engineers who know the two stations first-hand.
He also interviewed city notables, clergymen, civil society activists, and state officials, to find out how they are affected by the water supply, how they evaluate the final product delivered to their homes, and their views of water quality and its suitability for use.
Unsuitable for Household Use
According to the study, 85 percent of Basra’s 3.1 million people are supplied water by the national transmission lines, including about 1.3 million who live in the city center.
Al-Rubaie said the research showed that the water coming to homes from the public water network is non-potable and not suitable for household uses such as washing dishes and showering. (See a related article, “Water Testing in Iraq Shows Urgency of Remedying Environmental Neglect.”)
Most of the city’s residents are forced to buy water from mobile tankers or in bottles, he said; the cost strains family budgets at a time of difficult economic conditions, lack of job opportunities and a high level of poverty in Basra and across Iraq.
A ton of water, which covers the needs of an Iraqi family for about seven days, costs about 8,000 dinars ($5.48), al-Rubaie said.
The Impact of Dams Upstream
Zeyad Sulaiman, a professor at the University of Mosul’s Department of Dams and Water Resources Engineering, said the main cause of reduced water flows to southern Iraq are dams in Turkey and Iran. He said new dams are currently being built in both countries and are likely to halve the flow of the Tigris.
Iran has also cut off tributaries to the Sirwan and Karun Rivers, causing great difficulty in Iraq’s southern cities, according to Sulaiman.
The reduced flow of the Tigris and Euphrates has led to a rise in salt concentrations in the Shatt al-Arab.
Sea water entering the Shatt al-Arab from the Gulf creates what is known as a “salt tongue,” and Sulaiman warned that this “may result in stopping most of the drinking water pumping plants in Basra.”
It could also “completely eliminate the aquatic environment in this part of the river, if Iraq’s water supply from neighboring countries remain at the current rates,” he added.
Searching for Solutions
The study recommends diversifying the primary water sources in Basra Governorate through various measures, notably the construction of a planned desalination plant at Al-Faw district. Another proposal is the biological treatment of sewage water and its use in agricultural areas. (See a related article, “One Solution for a ‘Water-Stressed’ Future?)
Saltwater intrustion could “completely eliminate the aquatic environment in this part of the river, if Iraq’s water supply from neighboring countries remain at the current rates.”Zeyad Sulaiman
A professor at the University of Mosul
Mason recommends maintenance or replacement of some water systems that are more than 50 years old, and improving their performance by varying the water flow.
“An independent review of the water governance in Basra Governorate is necessary in light of the illegal use of water by trespassing on water networks and illegal laying of pipes by officials,” he said. “That increases operation and maintenance costs.”
Local authorities have tried to solve the problem by rehabilitating the Bada’a Canal, dug 23 years ago. The study warns, however, that this will lead to a significant decrease in the flow of water due to evaporation.
The flow could also be affected by the growth of Ceratophyllum, a submerged, free-floating plant clogging the water course between the canal and the Al-Abbas Water Treatment Plant.
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Sulaiman noted that the fact that the canal is mostly open makes it vulnerable to dumping. He also cast doubt on the canal’s ability to provide the required amount of water, especially in the summer.
Sulaiman believes Iraq needs, first, major dam reservoir projects and, second, increased efficiency of water usage, both in cities and in irrigation projects.
For his part, Mason warns that unless steps are taken to solve the problem, large numbers of people will migrate from the south towards central and northern Iraq.