In late 2018, 100,000 people were hospitalized in Basra, Iraq over the period of a few weeks, inundating hospitals and creating a frenzy of media attention. They were poisoned by the city’s toxic water supply, which was pumped untreated after a heat wave knocked out the city’s water treatment facilities.
Despite months of protests inside Basra to protest their unlivable conditions, little was accomplished: the city’s polluted water infrastructure remains under repaired and underserved even as its oil almost single-handedly funds the Iraqi state.
What makes this catastrophe important isn’t its sheer scale, but the fact that it has happened to Basra dozens of times before, and will likely happen again in the near future.
That’s because Basra is not governed as a city for people to live in, but as a strategic extraction point for its resources.
The city of Basra not only lies on top of one of the biggest oil reservoirs in the region, it’s also a port city providing access to Arabian/Persian Gulf. This rare combination makes it one of the most valuable cities in the Middle East to control, and one of the most hotly contested in the region’s history. A millennium of power struggles between warring empires and powers including the Ottomans, Persians, British, Shiite tribes and the Iraqi government have left the city’s infrastructure in tatters.
Developing the city with its residents’ welfare in mind was never occupying governments’ priority.
After countless generations of this mindset governing the city, Basra is beginning to break down, and residents of Basra now point the blame blame at Iran for trying to become the latest exploiter of its location and resources.
Basra’s troubled history is a case study in how colonial and imperial projects can continue to haunt a people, sabotaging prospects for their future.
Basra’s History of Negligence and Resource Predation
The ongoing water crisis in Basra is the latest to wreak havoc in the city, but its long history reveals the grim reality that water has simultaneously served as its lifeline and toxin.
The Shia-majority city of Basra lies in Iraq’s southwest. As the convergence point of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers near the Arabian/Persian Gulf, it has served as a strategic entry point to occupy the whole of Iraq and was almost always the first battleground in wars to control the country.
Its vast oil reservoirs of oil have also made it one of the most economically vital patches of land in the Middle East. Its fields currently account for 70% of Iraq’s oil reserves whose revenue in turn funds 90% of Iraq’s state budget.
As a region, Basra has been the staging point for control of Iraq’s economy and political sphere. In a developmental sense, the city has been designed to optimize its oil output to the detriment of the infrastructure that services its residents.
An entry from the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica featured a visit to Basra at the time, which described a dire situation for the town’s people:
“At high-tide, accordingly, the town presents a very attractive appearance, but at low-tide, when the mud banks are exposed, it seems dirty and repulsive, and the noxious exhalations are extremely trying. The whole region is subject to inundations. The town itself is unhealthy and strangers especially are apt to be attacked by fever.”
This account from British colonial anthropologists eerily mirrors contemporary accounts of Basrawi daily life: choked by fumes from depleted water flows making for a proverbial season of ‘low tide’ water, dry seasons and massive, toxic salt and sewage build-ups.
In 2018, Hamid Abdul-Wahib lives in a makeshift hut surrounded by a “simmering soup of rubbish and sewage.” His water had been undrinkable for months.
“It’s useless,” Abdul-Wahib explained to a visiting reporter from the London-based Independent. “You can’t even clean the dishes in it.”
“Taste this glass, it’s saltier than the sea,” he said. The reporter noted that the water was so hot it stung to touch.
From 1600 to the early 20th century, Basra changed hands between the Ottoman Empire, Persian Dynasties, local Shia tribes and militias and the British, who eventually captured the city from the Ottomans in 1914 as a way of safeguarding and bolstering their oil enterprises inside Iran.
Throughout much of this contested time, canals were built and dried up, irrigation systems that were developed by one ruling power were abandoned and left to deteriorate, while development upstream in Turkey steadily drained water flow to Basra.
The British modernized the city’s infrastructure around its potential as a industrial shipping route in the Middle East, but systematically excluded Basrawis from having a voice over their own governance. Local tensions with the British built up around the country and especially in its central-southern regions, and a revolt began. By 1920, the entire country was battling against the occupying British powers.
The British were overwhelmed, and eventually negotiated for more autonomy of the country under the rule of the Hashemite family, who were installed as royals.
Saddam’s Systemic Poisoning of Basra
They too were overthrown by a revolution that took place in the mid-20th century, which eventually ended with the Baathist party taking over Iraq. In 1979, Saddam Hussein took the reigns of power, and began violently crushing dissent to his rule. Basra’s restive Shia population twice rebelled against Saddam, and were twice violently put down.
In 1991 during the Gulf War, militias linked to the Shia-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIPRI) and the Badr Organization fought against units from Hussein’s Republican Guard and were beaten back. As a reprisal for the uprising, which coincided with several other violent revolts against Saddam throughout the country, Saddam ordered a mass crackdown against the city’s civilian population.
When again the city revolted against Saddam in 1999 in what is known as the al-Sadir Intifada, Saddam ordered mass executions of civilians and punished the city by redirecting its economic activity to a nearby port town of Umm Qasr.
The city was left politically abandoned by Saddam’s regime with its infrastructure in tatters.
A subsequent investigation by AP in May 2000 found that sewage was flowing directly into the Tigris River, exposing millions in Iraq’s south to serious waterborne diseases. It noted that a recent heatwave of 50C had turned the region’s stagnant water into incubation pools for bacteria.
Sewage was also found to be seeping near homes and playgrounds around Basra. “The sewerage system is collapsing, everything is contaminated. Many diseases are spreading incredibly such as typhoid. We can do nothing about it,” a local resident told reporters at the time.
“As the hot summer months loom ahead, some fear that infection from contaminated water could reach catastrophic levels,” the report also observes.
“Today, most of those treatment stations either lack spare parts or are completely out of service,” the report added.
Ungovernable: Britain’s Failure to Control the City
The 2003 occupation of Iraq by U.S. and British forces only exacerbated the city’s ongoing problems with governance and infrastructure.
British forces assigned to occupy and repair the city reported their engineers were unable to sustain any rebuilding efforts thanks to fight from local Shia militias.
A recently released report by the U.S. Army regarding the failures of the Iraq War detailed British Major General Jonathan Shaw’s inability to control the political landscape of Basra. Shaw said Basra resembled “Palermo, not Beirut,” since it was governed by warring mafia-like militias who had built up formidable presences in Basra over decades.
According to the report, “As Shaw saw it, most of the violence in Basrah took place simply because the British troops were there.”
Despite a concurrent U.S. troop surge, the British, who were mainly tasked with overseeing Basra, gave up the task and began to withdraw from the city completely. They handed control of the region to the local Iraqi government.
The provisional government faced the same problems as the British forces, and were unable to quiet the city’s Shiite militias, who wielded significant political influence.
Throughout the 2000s, Basra’s water infrastructure suffered steadily thanks to violence, looting, lack of maintenance and under-development.
Impoverished residents were forced to spend much of their income on water delivered by private tankers. Looting and pillaging of the city’s pipes, pumping and treatment facilities crippled its ability to service its roughly 2 million people.
UNICEF helped pump water to thousands of residents but ran out of money and withdrew their services. Outbreaks of astro-enteritis, brucellosis, hepatitis and typhoid fever became common, especially among children.
A 2007 feasibility study on improving Basra’s chronic water problem concluded starkly that much of the city’s water infrastructure would need to be rebuilt from scratch. The study estimated it would take roughly 40 years and tens of billions to fix the city’s supply shortages, purify the E. Coli-infected water and re-develop its treatment and distribution facilities.
Historically, Basra was developed to streamline money into the pockets of central governments and empires, but its administers almost never organized the city’s infrastructure around the needs and welfare of its local inhabitants, who have long been marginalized.
Basra Today: On the Fringe
Evidently, little has been done to repair the millennium-long negligence of Basra’s waterways. The pattern of dangerously toxic water causing a public health crisis is happening again.
Decades of reduced water flow compounded by a 50C heat wave in July 2018 malfunctioning the city’s electric grids raised the waters’ salinity level. It also brought the city’s population to the political boiling point.
In Sep 2018, about 100,000 people inside Basra were sent to the hospital thanks to the city’s water supply, which contains six times the salt level that is recommended to be safe by the World Health Organization.
Because much of the city lives below or around the poverty line, many were unable to afford access to private water vendors to drink and use for hygiene, which costs $120-140 per month.
Demands for safe and affordable drinking water cascaded into mass demonstrations against the corrupt, bloated governance of the Basra region by Baghdad and Tehran. Hundreds organized and marched through a nearby town’s streets, where they were met by Iraqi security forces who fired live rounds into the crowd. They killed one young man and injured three others.
“When we heard the news that they killed someone from our area, everyone jumped in the car and went calling others to join,” said Ali, a government employee who spoke to The Guardian.
“There I saw they had brought two helicopters and three armoured vehicles. I wondered where was this force when Daesh [ISIS] took Mosul?”
During a march in Sep, one speaker stood up among the crowd and said: “This gathering of ours is for nothing but to demand reform, and to demand services and not to be neglected. Today, from this podium, a Basra podium, in the name of the heroic al-Tamimyah area, we demand that the local administration come to this area to look at its streets, and services with their own eyes, [if they could] find any. There are no services in this destroyed area.”
Tens of thousands throughout Basra and other towns in the south marched, chanting slogans against the local government and what they perceived as Iranian meddling in their politics.
The Iranian Consulate in Basra was one of the first targets of the protestors, who stormed inside and set it alight on Sept 7. Protesters were heard yelling “Out, out Iran, Basra remains free!”
“People are out demanding their rights,” Ali said. “They see that Iraq is dying, strangled by these parties that have been looting us for 15 years but who are more interested in serving Iranian interests than our interests. We either save the country or it will be lost.”
Iran reportedley controls several powerful militias operating in the city, and has worked to cement its presence in Iraq’s political and military system. Demonstrators see Tehran as the latest in a long line of imperial states seeking to control the destiny of their city, even while its services crumble.
“Iran has destabilized Basra with their armed gangs,” Sattar Hamdi a 50 year-old day laborer said to a reporter after the consulate burned down. “They have the upper hand here and with the politicians in Baghdad. I’m appealing to any foreign country, even Israel, for help because we’ve already lost Iraq to Iran.”
The police response grew more lethal: around 27 were killed and hundreds more injured by the security forces.
Over time, the protests’ size and scope have dwindled and as a result, the ongoing unrest in and around Basra has been under-covered and swept aside for other, more breaking stories.
The lack of media attention hasn’t stopped the demonstrators, who see no signs of improvement. On Jan 18, three days before Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi made a surprise visit to tour the city’s infrastructure projects, protesters burned a police car outside an administrative building.
The problems plaguing Basra haven’t just materialized since the summer of 2018, they’ve defined the political identity of Basra for a millennium.
Basra has yet to be developed in accordance with the welfare and needs of the people, who have suffered through generations of colonizers and imposed governments prioritizing economic and geostrategic objectives.
It is still designed for its resources and strategic value to be extracted, but it is yet to be built for its people to live there.
As long as this remains the case, another wave of hospitalizations due to polluted water is not only likely; it is inevitable.