BAGHDAD: Hospitals in Basra have been flooded with thousands of patients suffering from drinking polluted and saline water as the province reels from the latest breakdown in basic services.
Political and tribal leaders from the oil hub have threatened to obstruct crude exports and wage a campaign of civil disobedience if the government does not act to resolve the drastic shortage of clean drinking water.
The crisis follows a summer of electricity shortages that sparked large protests across the south of the country, as the country is locked in a tense political stalemate over forming a government.
Health authorities in Basra said they have dealt with more than 14,000 cases in the past two weeks related to the consumption of unclean water.
The quality of water in Basra, Iraq’s third most populous province, has deteriorated in recent months. Saline levels have increased as the quantity of water flowing down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers dropped and sea water levels increased in the Shatt Al-Arab. The waterway, which marks the border with Iran, is the main supply of drinking water in Basra.
Basra Health Directorate on Monday said most of the cases they have been treating have been concentrated in areas-supplied with water from Shatt Al-Arab.
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“There is a clear relationship between the water salinity and increasing infections,” the authority said.
The population has been forced to rely on mobile water tankers provided by both government and private suppliers, local officials told Arab News.
These tankers fill up from desalination plants where the quality of the water is not being properly monitored, Basra’s health officials said.
In Basra, there are about 100 desalination plant, but just 27 of them meet the required health standards.
Basra is home to the largest oil fields in Iraq, and the province exports more than 3.5 million barrels per day.
This oil production is the backbone of the Iraqi economy, which relies entirely on oil revenues to pay the salaries of millions of employees and provide government services.
All the Shiite-dominated southern provinces, including Basra, have been neglected and left impoverished for decades as a result of wars, lack of strategic planning and rampant corruption.
Massive demonstrations swept through the south and Baghdad last month to protest against the lack of basic services, high unemployment rates and poverty. At least 17 demonstrators were killed in clashes between protesters and Iraqi security forces, police said.
In an attempt to calm the protests, which started in Basra, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi allocated 3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars ($2.93 billion) to projects to solve the water and electricity problems and provide ten thousand jobs.
But six weeks after his announcement, Basra has not received any funds to start the work on the projects, local officials said.
“Al-Abadi himself and the ministerial committee he formed have not fulfilled their promises,” Jabar Al-Sa’adi, the chairman of the Services Committee in Basra Governorate Council told Arab News.
“The water is not suitable for drinking, epidemics and diseases are spreading at a frightening rate and water salinity is steadily increasing, while the federal government is just watching.”
Basra Governor As'ad Al-Eidani said in a televised interview that Al-Abadi has refused to release money allocated to the province because of the lack of impartial officials to handle it.
Health officials fear an outbreak of cholera as the fresh water flowing down to the Shatt Al-Arab will significantly reduced by the middle of next month.
Members of parliament who represent Basra called for an emergency meeting with local officials on Sunday to find urgent solutions.
They agreed to give the federal government no more than 48 hours to increase the amount of water flowing down Iraq’s two main rivers to ease the crisis, those in attendance told Arab News.
They also demanded that Al-Abadi release the funding required to start building the infrastructure to improve water treatment.
If not, local government and tribes will declare civil disobedience and stop work in all governmental departments, ports and border crossings.
“We will paralyze public life, stop oil exports and close border crossings,” Falih Al-Khazaili, a senior Shiite MP and a key player in Basra told Arab News. “Oil is not more important than people's lives in Basra.
“Why do we allow the export of oil from Basra while we cannot provide drinking water for its people?”