Water, energy at heart of Iraq’s governance crisis
At first sight, Iraq’s current summer of discontent may not seem a particularly relevant or novel development; large protests in the country have been a regular occurrence for a few years now.
The issues stoking the discontent against the political establishment are also worryingly familiar: Another political deadlock, lack of basic services, crisis in the education sector, unemployment and endemic corruption. Iraq is ranked 166th of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
But various reports from the ground show that these protests were larger in size and intensity than previous years. The aggravation of longstanding problems related to the depletion of fresh water reserves, electricity shortages, and the mismanagement of oil exploration and revenues, are at the center of this grave crisis.
The May 12 elections, in which 55 percent of the electorate did not participate, were marred by allegations of fraud, and talks between various parties and alliances have failed to deliver a government. The constitutional crisis led to a manual recount that is ongoing.
While the political establishment showed an alarming inability to break the deadlock, major protests erupted on July 8 in Basra and predominantly Shiite southern cities such as Najaf and Nasiriya, and eventually spread north to Baghdad. Protesters stormed government buildings, infrastructure sites and headquarters of political parties and militias. Unarmed protesters have been killed by security forces and dozens wounded.
The initial demonstrations were propelled by electricity shortages in Basra, following a decrease in the electricity that Iran provides to this region of Iraq. These shortages coincided with extremely high temperatures (50 degrees Celsius in some areas). One view is that Tehran decreased electricity supplies as a means to pressure Baghdad over payments related to its energy imports from Iran.
Basra, where it all began, is rich in oil and natural gas, but for decades it has hardly felt the benefits of the exploration of those resources. Despite the benefits that oil revenues bring to the central government, oil and gas exploration in the province offers very few employment opportunities to local people.
Especially during the premiership of Nouri Maliki, which coincided with a boom in oil exports and high oil prices, hundreds of billions of dollars went missing from state coffers, as later confirmed by the Iraqi Parliament’s finance committee.
This ransacking may have diminished with lower oil prices and the more responsible Prime Minister Haider Abadi, but widespread corruption remains a major issue in the oil sector, across sectors, and at all levels of central government and local institutions. Quite tellingly, protesters targeted local oil infrastructure in an attempt to paralyze business. Oil fields were blocked, and national and foreign oil company sites attacked.
Various headquarters and offices of pro-Iran groups were invaded by protesters. In Karbala, the offices of Asaeb Ahl Al-Haq were set on fire.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
One of the most obvious consequences of the intense exploration of these resources in and around Basra is the environmental degradation and pollution of local water. Ironically, Basra was once famous for its freshwater canals.
Its water crisis has multiple dimensions. Beyond the pollution caused by oil exploration, local potable water has become highly salinized and thus not viable for either consumption or agricultural use. It is estimated that salinity has reduced in almost 90 percent the province’s arable land. Agriculture is the Iraqi economy’s second most important sector after oil.
To make matters worse, upstream dams in neighboring Iran, Syria and Turkey have shrunk local rivers. Turkey, for example, has built numerous dams and hydroelectric plants in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Earlier this year, water levels in Lake Milh, Iraq’s second largest, declined dramatically, to the point that the government and environmental activists fear it will dry up completely.
All the responses from government officials and key political figures continue to sound like too little too late. Abadi suspended the electricity minister, and there have been talks with Iraq’s willing neighbors Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to find solutions to the power shortages.
In last Friday’s sermon in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani backed protesters’ calls, and reminded the political class that he had long warned of the dire need to implement structural reforms and tackle head-on the widespread cancer of corruption. While Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric called for a government to be formed urgently, Muqtada Al-Sadr reinforced his alarming populist credentials.
The leader of the Sairoon Alliance, which won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the May 12 elections according to the electronic vote count, called for the postponement of government-formation efforts until the protesters’ calls are met. Fortunately, Al-Sadr’s opportunistic wishes seem to have been ignored; it is hard to envision how governance problems can be tackled without an empowered government in place.
Fears that pro-Iran militia leaders such as Haider Ameri, head of the Badr militia, could take advantage of the governmental crisis to force their way to power are growing among Iraqis of all stripes. If the current instability continues or new protests turn violent, that would provide these militias with the perfect opportunity to jump in.
However, July’s protests have also revealed great antagonism among Iraqis toward pro-Iran parties and groups with militias of their own. Various headquarters and offices of these groups were invaded by protesters. In Karbala, for example, the offices of Asaeb Ahl Al-Haq were set on fire.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.