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Wastewater flows in central Basra, Iraq on July 20, 2019. A leading human rights organization has accused Iraqi authorities of failing to properly address underlying causes for an ongoing water crisis in Iraq's southern region.
Nabil al-Jurani/AP
Water & Sanitation

More Than 100,000 Iraqis Were Hospitalized Due to Unsafe Drinking Water in 2018


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Unsafe drinking water promotes disease and malnutrition. A new Human Rights report sheds light on the severity of Basra’s water crisis. All people must have access to clean water and sanitation to end extreme poverty. You can join us and take action on this issue here

For decades, millions of people have been denied access to safe drinking water in Basra, Iraq — and human rights advocates claim the government isn’t doing much to help.

The organization Human Rights Watch released a report on Monday titled “Basra Is Thirsty: Iraq’s Failure to Manage the Water Crisis,” revealing decades of mismanagement and corruption by public officials and rampant environmental pollution.

At least 118,000 residents required hospital treatment in 2018 after drinking water polluted with sewage and toxic waste, according to the report. If the health crisis isn’t addressed soon, it will only worsen, leading to more outbreaks of water-borne diseases and creating economic hardship, Human Rights Watch warned.

Basra-based comedian Ahmed Waheed published a video in partnership with Human Rights Watch. calling on Iraqis to demand safe, clean drinking water from the government. Waheed invites Iraqis to post selfies holding a glass of water on social media using the hashtag #CleanWaterForBasra.

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of Basra residents and government officials and analyzed satellite imagery for the report. For 30 years, authorities have failed to ensure that residents had sufficient safe drinking water, which has caused ongoing health concerns. Authorities have also failed to publish the results of official investigations into the cause of the recent health crisis, despite residents’ complaints of stomach pains and skin rashes from unsafe water, according to Al Jazeera. 

Basra-Iraq-Water-Quality-Health-002.jpgA man tries to fix a leaking potable water pipe near his home, Iraq on July 20, 2019.
Image: Nabil al-Jurani/AP

The Shatt al-Arab river and its freshwater canals are the main water sources for Basra, but multiple government failures since the 1980s have caused their quality to decline. Human Rights Watch found that 40% of Basra’s sewage was being dumped directly into the body of water and authorities didn’t tell residents that two oil spills had occurred in the river. 

Read More: Half a Million Iraqis Are Without Drinking Water After Mosul Offensive

The particular health crisis in 2018 may have been caused by a number of factors including viruses, parasites, bacteria, toxic metals from sewage, other forms of pollution, a possible algal bloom, and the high salinity of the water caused by low rainfall due to climate change. Up to 3,000 residents went to the hospital daily to report their symptoms during the peak of the crisis. 

The water contamination and shortages in Basra, are a financial burden for residents.

“The first, obvious implication of Basra’s water crisis is that people are obliged to buy bottled water since they can’t drink tap water,” co-author of the report, Ahmed Benchmesi, Human Rights Watch communications and advocacy director, Middle East and North Africa, told Global Citizen. 

Residents living in poverty are more likely to resort to unsafe tap water when they can’t afford the alternatives. An estimated 338,400 Basra residents who live in illegal homes can’t access the government’s water and sanitation network and tap unsafe outdated water pipes on their own. 

“This has been going on for decades, with the cost of bottled water rising at peak crisis moments, like last summer. This situation has acutely affected the poorer citizens of Basra,” Benchmesi explained.

Currently, there is no public health advisory system in place in Basra to inform residents when their drinking water could be dangerous and what steps should be taken to prevent getting sick. 

Agriculture, the main source of income for rural communities living in Basra, is also taking a hit due to the lack of clean water. When farmers try to irrigate their crops with saline water, their harvests become compromised. 

Initiatives to remedy the city’s lack of clean water haven’t made much progress. Government engineering projects to improve water quality have been abandoned due to mismanagement and corruption, according to the report. Farmers and business, meanwhile, have been tapping into the few freshwater canals leaving nothing for human consumption. 

To prevent Basra’s water crisis from growing, Human Rights Watch says Iraqi authorities should notify residents when drinking water is unsafe and establish government crisis response protocols. Creating transparency by making reports from the 2018 health crisis public is also necessary. The organization advises local and federal authorities to form a task force to monitor the situation and consult with residents.