Basra drowning in a sea of salt and poison

Adnan Hussein

Published: Updated:

After repeatedly speaking out, like tens of thousands of Iraqis from the province of Basra, and not receiving any positive response from the local or federal governments, civil society activist Hashem Ahmed came up with a new and unprecedented way to voice his objection.

On the west bank of the Shatt al-Arab River, a bronze statue of Basra’s and Iraq’s poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, one of the pioneers of the free verse in Arabic poetry, has stood for years. The statue was long neglected before the Ministry of Water Resources pledged to restore it last year while cleaning the rivers and streams of the Shatt al-Arab and which have suffered from neglect and turned into stagnant swamps due to the mounds of waste. Local authorities had ignored cleaning this water and did not take any initiative to clean it though it was once the source of prosperous agricultural life in Basra.

The ‘Salt Song’

The Basra activist, deliberately covered the Bronze Status of Sayyab with salt, while another activist wrote on the statue’s pedestal ‘Salt Song’ that made a clear dig at the famous poem ‘The Rain Song’. It is as if the activist wanted to say that if Sayyab would have been alive today he would have written a new poem with this title.

Basra is not just the only channel that opens Iraq to the Arabian Gulf and the rest of the world, but it’s also the economic capital with a population of nearly three million. It is the largest oil and gas producing province with the largest and most important oil fields. Its oil reserves account for 59% of Iraq's total reserves of 115 billion barrels. Its ports export the largest percentage of oil (more than 3.5 million barrels per day), whose financial resources fund 95% of the state budget.

With its astronomical wealth, Basra should have been one of the world's most prosperous and developed cities.

Adnan Hussein

With this astronomical wealth, Basra should have been one of the world's most prosperous and developed cities. However, the opposite is true as the city today lacks the most basic of public services amenities (health, education, electricity, water, transportation, housing and sanitation). Its population is the poorest in Iraq, and this has resulted in protests every year since 2010. Their current uprising, which is the longest and most critical, has been ongoing for the last two months.

This year, the problem of water scarcity has worsened. The salinity in the waters of the Shatt al-Arab has increased due to abnormal levels, making it unsuitable for drinking and agriculture. Due to the absence of a sewage system in the governorate, Basra’s water has been contaminated with toxins. The latest statistics indicates that the cases of poisoning and other digestive diseases have risen to 18,000 cases.

Dams to the north

The high rate of salinity in the Shatt al-Arab is mainly due to the lack of sufficient quantities of fresh water coming from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This is because Turkey and Syria have built many dams on them while Iraq was not interested in building any irrigation facilities.

The situation worsened when Iran built dams on its side and diverted the streams of some rivers which originate from Iran and flow into the Tigris and Shatt al-Arab rivers. Iran also dumped contaminated water into Shatt al-Arab thus increasing the rate of salinity and contamination.

The biggest problem for Basra, and by all means for Iraq as a whole, is the corruption of the influential political class, which mostly consists of political Islam groups. Since 2003, Iraq's revenues from oil exports have reached over $1 trillion. It is estimated that at least a quarter of that amount ended up in the accounts of influential parties, their leaders and their partners of Iraqi, Arab, Iranian, Turkish and other businessmen.

Corruption poisons

These influential parties have formed "economic committees" in the ministries and governorates, and they manage these committees which function is to obtain financial bribes (commissions) from companies that are in the process of signing contracts to build industrial and agricultural projects. Many of these companies are front companies and have ties to ministers, governors and general managers in Iraq and were only founded in order to acquire funds allocated to projects.

In Basra in particular, news broke in the last two years that the governor, the head of the provincial council, members of the provincial council and other senior officials were involved in administrative and financial corruption.

The former governor had fled the country through Iran to dodge arrest and trial. Such incidents happen dozens of times a year. The fact that there isn’t a policy in place to fight corruption has made matters worse. In fact, everything that is happening in Iraq is in the interest of the corrupt.

The judiciary’s orders to arrest officials accused of corruption are not implemented, and if they happen to be implemented the defendants are usually exempted thanks to the general amnesty law which was issued two years ago, or they are released on grounds of "insufficient evidence". This expression alludes to the fact that the sufficient evidence to convict the defendant is usually in the hands of government officials accused of corruption themselves.

Since 2006, the year in which the first elected government took power, the three successive governments have vowed to make fighting administrative and financial corruption within their priority. However, these operations to fight corruption only addressed few of the powerless corrupt while the big sharks have remained outside the realm of accountability and prosecution thanks to their influence and the power of their influential parties which have always received a significant share of the loot.

To make matters worse, the system of forming these governments has been based on a system of sectarian, national and partisan quotas, contrary to the provisions of the constitution. This system has played a crucial role in exempting corrupt officials, who are senior officials of the parties represented in the government, from accountability.

The abolition of the quota system is the first condition to fight administrative and financial corruption in Iraq. This will be a prerequisite for the revival of political, economic and social life, and to save Basra from its current drowning in salty and poisonous water so that fresh water can return and pour into Basra and Iraq as a whole, like depicted by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab in his poem ‘Rain Song’: Rain, rain, rain.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Adnan Hussein is the executive editor-in-chief of Al-Mada newspaper and head of the National Union of Iraqi journalists. Previously, he has held the position of Managing Editor in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. He tweets under the handle @adnanhussein

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