How to tackle Basra’s water problems

How to tackle Basra’s water problems
Iraqi governments have failed to provide safe, drinkable water to much of the population. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2019

How to tackle Basra’s water problems

How to tackle Basra’s water problems
  • Iraqi city’s unsafe water causes water-borne disease outbreaks and economic hardship
  • A HRW study says pollution, mismanagement and corruption lie at the root of the water problems

DUBAI: It was dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” for its network of waterways that invited comparisons to the Italian city. But Basra is today emblematic of almost everything that is wrong with Iraq. Few maladies, though, reflect the depth of the rot in the country’s system like the port city’s acute water crisis.

Situated where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers merge near the Gulf at Iraq’s southern tip, Basra is home to 2.5 million people but lacks an effective water treatment system. Be it the Shatt Al-Arab River or the canals, Basra’s water resources have fallen victim to “decades of pollution, mismanagement and corruption,” according to a recent report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The study was prompted by a creeping sense over the past two decades that the concept of human rights is not relevant to the average citizen of fragile states such as Iraq. Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher in the HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, said a desire to counter that impression inspired her to conduct the investigation.

“I wanted to emphasize to Iraqis that the issues they care about on a daily basis are human rights issues, so I was waiting to come across the right opportunity to drive home that point,” Wille said.

In Basra’s water crisis, which has blighted large expanses of southern Iraq, she found a direct connection between human rights violations and corruption. “In Iraq, no matter what their religion or ethnic identity, everyone agrees that corruption is one of the biggest problems facing the country, with deeply damaging consequences,” she said. “So I wanted to look at it from a rights perspective.”

In the 1960s, Basra had an advanced sanitary infrastructure, but for almost 30 years, governments have failed to provide safe, drinkable water to much of the population. Tempers flared in the summer of last year when water-borne disease outbreaks led to the hospitalization of tens of thousands of residents. Protests erupted in the city once against this summer as anger over deteriorating services and economic hardship boiled over.




A decrease in the amount of water flowing to the Shatt Al-Arab and its canals resulted in higher levels of sewage, industrial pollution and water salinity. (AFP)

Wille says what lies at the root of Basra’s chronic water crisis is not one but a number of different factors: Reduced water flow, seawater intrusion, pollution and mismanagement of waterways.

“It rained and snowed a lot over Christmas and early this January, so that means the water situation across Iraq this year is theoretically better, with more water flowing through the waterways.

“This means Iraq should not have as much seawater intrusion as before, so water pollution should therefore also be reduced,” she said.

The reality of the situation is another matter.

“We know in terms of global trends of low rainfall and increasing temperatures, this means that when there is another year of low rainfall, then the crisis will be worse,” Wille said.

Until the early 1980s, Basra was a magnet for Middle Eastern tourists, but these days an estimated 338,400 residents of the city live in informal housing spread throughout the oil-rich governorate. These homes are excluded from the formal water and sanitation networks, making them water-insecure.

According to the UN, almost 4,000 individuals in the Basra governorate had to leave their homes in August 2018. This was most likely due to poor access to adequate supplies of potable water, although a causal link between the two has not been proven.

What is known is that last year, there was a decrease in the amount of water flowing to the Shatt Al-Arab and its canals from rivers upstream, which resulted in higher levels of sewage, agricultural, industrial pollution and salinity in the water.

Prior to 2018, Basra had experienced water-related health emergencies in 2009 and 2015, but, according to the HRW report, local and federal authorities failed to properly address the underlying causes or establish procedures to protect residents before a new crisis arose. For example, during the 2018 crisis, authorities did not adequately alert residents to the dangers posed by poor water quality.

Iraqi ministries did cooperate with Wille’s investigation, but the report also said that the results of tests of water samples from the Shatt Al-Arab and treatment plants after the protests of 2018 summer were not made public. HRW was told by all federal and local authorities that the results and reports were confidential.

With the help of satellite imagery, Wille’s research found that two major spills had occurred in 2018 that leaked oil into the Shatt Al-Arab in central Basra. 

Again, the government did not apprise the public of the oil spills, even though many residents had complained about a gasoline smell in their tap water and some were even able to set the water aflame.

In the process, the HRW report was able to identify a glaring drawback of Iraq’s regulatory regime: The absence of a public health advisory to inform residents when drinking water is contaminated, how to reduce harm and protocols for government officials to respond to advisories and lift them.

“Basra residents now apparently risk illness from just using the water to wash their food or themselves, and the authorities have not enforced standards even for water for these purposes,” Wille said.

“The lack of sufficient freshwater has also cost Basra its title as the country’s biggest producer of dates. Farmers have been irrigating their farmland with the saline water from the Shatt Al-Arab for many years now, killing off most of their crops and livestock as a result.”

Her next step will be to meet officials in Baghdad in September and push for the adoption of the three pages of recommendations from the HRW report. Later in the month, she intends to hold meetings with officials of European countries that may want to contribute to the amelioration of Iraq’s water situation.

“Our primary recommendation is for the establishment of an inter-ministerial body that includes local authorities,” Wille said, adding that the current arrangement “allows the federal government (in Baghdad) to blame the authorities in Basra for everything.” Although she is not sure about the political will to implement the primary recommendation, Wille is not giving up hope. “The creation of such a body would be the first step towards implementing the report’s recommendations,” she said. “At the moment, even if the government adopts them, it does not have the buy-in to implement them.”

After years of occupation, sectarian strife, misrule and underinvestment, few expect Basra to regain its fabled beauty any time soon. But some tentative steps towards a resolution of the ongoing water crisis do not seem like an unreasonable demand.

 


Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees
Updated 28 sec ago

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees
  • News that Syria’s embassies had opened for voter registration was met with disappointment by refugees in Lebanon
  • Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been distributed in the Bekaa Valley and on the country’s northern borders since arriving in Lebanon

BEIRUT: Syrian refugees in Lebanon have expressed bitterness and disappointment ahead of elections that are expected to keep President Bashar Assad in office.

The Syrian Parliament has set May 26 as the date for the poll.

Assad won in 2014 with more than 88 percent of the Syrian vote. He has not officially announced his candidacy to run in next month’s election.

News that Syria’s embassies had opened for voter registration was met with disappointment by refugees in Lebanon, who also expressed their frustration with the international community.

Abu Ahmad Souaiba, speaking on behalf of the Voice of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, said the revolution was launched to “achieve freedom and dignity.”

“Our disappointment today is great because of the failure to implement (UN) Security Council resolutions, which call for power transition not the re-election of Bashar Assad one more time,” he told Arab News.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been distributed in the Bekaa Valley and on the country’s northern borders since arriving in Lebanon, with the majority of those who took part in the revolution against Assad concentrated in the Arsal area.

“There are three segments of Syrians in Lebanon,” said Souaiba. “One segment includes families who have been living in Lebanon since before the revolution and those who are not affiliated with the opposition. The second includes the opposition, and these migrated to Lebanon in 2013 and 2014 because of the barrels of death (barrel bombs). The third includes those who are neither with the opposition nor with the regime, and those (people) came to Lebanon because of the economic crisis and are concerned about obtaining their livelihood and the sustenance of their families.”

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon decreased to 865,500 by the end of Dec. 2020.

Lebanon called on the UNHCR to suspend new registrations at the beginning of 2015. 

About 55,000 have returned to Syria in recent years as part of repatriation efforts by Lebanese General Security and as part of a reconciliation program sponsored by Hezbollah in some Syrian towns.

Rumors are circulating that Hezbollah has set up committees to fill out census forms with the number of Syrian refugees present in certain areas ahead of taking them to voting stations on polling day.

Talk of a Hezbollah census has coincided with information that the Ministry of Interior is waiting for UNHCR data in order to prepare a mechanism for calculating the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The ministry has been assigned this task in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Lebanese General Security and the UNHCR.

Arab News contacted UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abu Khaled, but she refused to comment and only said there was “currently no refugee census.”

Souaiba believed there was no need to recount the refugees because, around six weeks ago, a census was carried out by NGOs under the supervision of Lebanese military intelligence for refugees in camps and settlements, specifically in the Arsal area which is open to the land connecting Lebanese and Syrian territories.

He also said there was news from inside Syria of hunger, even in Damascus, and painted a bleak picture of people’s desperation to escape.

“There is no fuel and no electricity,” he added. “A woman who fled to Lebanon with her children told me that her husband was arrested by Syrian authorities and his fate is still unknown. She is almost dying of starvation with her children. She preferred to flee to Lebanon with her children and borrowed $100 to pay the smuggler. She thought that in Lebanon she would receive some food, and this is better than hunger in Syria.”

A UNHCR study estimated that 89 percent of Syrian refugee families were living below the extreme poverty line in Lebanon in 2020, compared to 55 percent in 2019.


Iran, IAEA start talks on unexplained uranium traces

Iran, IAEA start talks on unexplained uranium traces
Updated 4 min 17 sec ago

Iran, IAEA start talks on unexplained uranium traces

Iran, IAEA start talks on unexplained uranium traces
  • Failure to make progress on explaining the uranium traces could mean world powers would push for a resolution by June

VIENNA: The UN nuclear watchdog and Iran on Monday started talks aimed at obtaining explanations from Tehran on the origin of uranium traces at found at undeclared locations in Iran, an issue which could affect efforts to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
An agreement to hold the talks helped persuade European powers to hold off of seeking a resolution criticizing Iran at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors last month.
That avoided an escalation between Iran and the West that could have hurt efforts to bring Washington and Tehran back into full compliance with the 2015 deal, under which Iran agreed to curbs to its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.
Failure to make progress on explaining the uranium traces in the IAEA’s talks with Tehran could mean France, Britain and Germany would push for a resolution with US backing by the next IAEA board meeting in June.
“The IAEA and Iran began today to engage in a focused process aimed at clarifying outstanding safeguards issues,” the IAEA said in a statement, adding that the meeting was at the level of experts.
The Iran nuclear deal effectively drew a line under what the IAEA and US intelligence agencies believe was a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that Iran halted in 2003. Iran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons.
In the past two years, however, IAEA inspectors have found traces of processed uranium at three sites Iran never declared to the watchdog, suggesting that Tehran had nuclear material connected to old activities that remains unaccounted for.
The IAEA must track that material down to be sure Iran is not diverting any to make nuclear weapons.
The issue has been a complicating factor in the diplomatic effort to resurrect the 2015 deal, which then-US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 prompting Iran to violate some of its limits. President Joe Biden aims to resurrect the deal, but Washington and Tehran are at odds over how to do that.
A first IAEA-Iran meeting to discuss the uranium traces had been due to take place in Tehran in early April, but that was delayed just as talks to rescue the deal, involving its remaining parties and shuttle diplomacy with the United States, were being arranged in Vienna.
“Today’s meeting took place in Vienna, as participating Iranian experts are also involved in separate meetings on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action at another location in the Austrian capital,” the IAEA said, using the deal’s full name.


Ethiopia rejected 15 Egyptian ideas to resolve Nile dam dispute: Water minister

Ethiopia rejected 15 Egyptian ideas to resolve Nile dam dispute: Water minister
Updated 47 min 55 sec ago

Ethiopia rejected 15 Egyptian ideas to resolve Nile dam dispute: Water minister

Ethiopia rejected 15 Egyptian ideas to resolve Nile dam dispute: Water minister
  • Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry highlights project developments on African tour as Addis Ababa accused of ‘intransigence’
  • Minister of Water Mohammed Abdel-Ati said that Egypt had presented 15 scenarios for filling and operating the dam in a way that met with Ethiopian requirements

CAIRO: Ethiopia had rejected 15 different ideas put forward by Egypt to help resolve a bitter row over the development of a highly controversial Nile dam project, a senior minister has revealed.

Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohammed Abdel-Ati said Addis Ababa had poured cold water on all of Cairo’s suggestions to reach agreement about water rights and other issues related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) scheme.

His claims came as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry embarked on a tour of African countries to highlight Egypt’s position regarding the latest developments in the GERD negotiations.

During his trip – taking in Comoros, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal, Kenya, and Tunisia – Shoukry delivered letters from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to the leaders of the countries explaining Cairo’s stance on the matter.

Ahmed Hafez, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said the tour was aimed at reviving talks and supporting the process of reaching a binding legal agreement between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on issues such as the filling and operation of the dam.

Addressing a meeting of the Egyptian Senate’s defense and national security committee, Abdel-Ati said Cairo had shown great flexibility during its discussions with Ethiopia.

He pointed out that most of Egypt’s estimated annual 60 billion cubic meters of water resources came from the Nile, with limited quantities of rainwater and deep groundwater from the deserts.

“The total water needs in Egypt reach about 114 billion cubic meters annually,” he added.

The supply gap was compensated for through the reuse of agricultural drainage water and surface groundwater in the Nile valley and delta, in addition to importing food products from abroad corresponding to 34 billion cubic meters of water annually, he said.

Abdel-Ati blamed the failure in negotiations on Ethiopian “intransigence” and “unilateral measures” taken by Addis Ababa.

“Egypt has already signed the initials of the Washington agreement, which confirms Egypt’s clear desire to reach a deal,” the minister added.

He noted that Egypt had presented 15 scenarios for filling and operating the dam in a way that met with Ethiopian requirements and prevented tangible harm to the two downstream countries, but Ethiopia had dismissed the proposals.

The volume of rainwater in Ethiopia amounted to more than 935 billion cubic meters per year, and 94 percent of its land was green compared to 6 percent in Egypt, Abdel-Ati said.

He added that Ethiopia had more than 100 million livestock animals that consumed 84 billion cubic meters of water annually, which was equal to the combined water share of Egypt and Sudan, and its share of blue water (running water in the river) was about 150 billion cubic meters every year.

Ethiopia, he said, also withdrew water from Lake Tana for agricultural uses.


UK calls on Israel to ensure free Palestinian elections

UK calls on Israel to ensure free Palestinian elections
Updated 19 April 2021

UK calls on Israel to ensure free Palestinian elections

UK calls on Israel to ensure free Palestinian elections
  • British Consulate in Jerusalem: ‘Recent disruption of meetings in East Jerusalem, arrest of candidates unacceptable’
  • ‘If Israel decides to intervene in elections for other people, there should be consequences,’ expert tells Arab News

LONDON: The British government has called on Israel to ensure free and fair Palestinian elections take place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Palestinian voters want free, fair and inclusive elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza,” the British Consulate in Jerusalem tweeted.

“We call on Israel to facilitate elections in line with the Oslo Accords. The recent disruption of meetings in East Jerusalem and arrest of candidates is unacceptable.”

Elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council are expected to be held on May 22. Last week, Israeli police arrested three candidates as they were preparing to hold a news conference.

Two of those arrested were representing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party. The third is a candidate for the Palestinian Democratic Union.

“It’s extremely welcome that the British Consulate in Jerusalem has made this statement that backs Palestinian elections and calls on Israel to facilitate them,” Chris Doyle, chairman of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told Arab News.

“The actions of the Israeli authorities in harassing and arresting candidates in East Jerusalem was outrageous,” he said.

“We hope that the consulate’s message will be repeated at the highest level — not just by a Twitter account — and that the foreign secretary and the prime minister will vigorously reinforce the message that Palestinians in East Jerusalem must be allowed to vote,” he added.

“East Jerusalem is part of the occupied West Bank and shouldn’t be cut off. To do so is to give informal approval to the illegal Israeli annexation.”

Regarding what more could be done by British authorities to ensure the success of the upcoming elections, Doyle said: “Britain will hopefully be sending election monitors, which will indicate that it’s taking these elections seriously and ensuring they take place in a fair fashion.”

He added: “If Israel decides to intervene in elections for other people, there should be consequences. Israel maintains that it’s a democracy, but here it is once again disrupting and delegitimizing elections for Palestinians.”

He said: “Palestinians can’t vote in Israel’s general elections, and now they’re being prevented from taking part in their own. It’s completely unacceptable.”

Julie Elliott, an MP for the UK’s main opposition Labour Party, tweeted that she totally agrees with the consulate’s message. 

Fatah is currently leading Hamas in the polls. A survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in December found that 52 percent of Palestinians do not anticipate that the elections will be held freely.


Israel to buy millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses

Israel to buy millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses
Updated 19 April 2021

Israel to buy millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses

Israel to buy millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses
  • New vaccinations will be suitable to protect people against different coronavirus variants, said Netanyahu
  • Israeli PM hopes to sign a similar deal to purchase vaccines from Moderna

JERUSALEM: Israel signed a deal to buy millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccinations from Pfizer through 2022, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.
The new vaccinations will be suitable to protect people against different variants of the coronavirus, Netanyahu said in a statement.
He said he hopes to sign a similar deal to purchase vaccines from Moderna.
“This means that very soon we will have more than enough vaccines, both for adults and children,” he said.
With about 81% of citizens or residents over 16 — the age group eligible for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Israel — having received both doses, infections and hospitalizations are down sharply.