Iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

A report has shed light on the grim water situation across Iraq, 20 years after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime.

Sewage and petrochemical pollution still contaminates domestic supply in major cities such as Basra, scene of a wave of protests in 2018 after more than 120,000 people were sickened by poor quality water.

The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights on Thursday said “oil, medical waste and wastewater” was poured into Iraq’s rivers, the country’s main source of freshwater.

The situation made international headlines in 2018 when a sudden drop in the level of the Tigris and Euphrates allowed seawater to encroach waterways in the port city of Basra, where the two rivers form a third called the Shatt Al Arab.

That summer, Turkey had begun filling the Ilisu, the largest dam on the Tigris, which can hold up to 10 billion cubic metres of water. About 90 per cent of the Tigris’s annual flow originates in Turkey.

The Shatt Al Arab became highly saline, preventing the effective functioning of water treatment plants. An investigation by Human Rights Watch also highlighted petroleum and oil pollution in the city’s waterways, a problem affecting many communities across Iraq.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani and promised to release more water from Turkish dams. Iran also dams key tributaries of the Tigris, including the Zaab and Diyala rivers.

iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

A fisherman with his boat in the drought-stricken Chibaish marshes in Nasiriyah, southern Iraq. All photos: AP

iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

Fishermen are badly affected by low water levels in the marshes of southern Iraq.

iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

An aerial view of the Chibaish marshes.

iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

The Chibaish marshes in Nasiriyah, southern Iraq.

iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

Water buffalo in the marshes.

iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

A fisherman on an area of marshland in southern Iraq previously covered by water.

iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

Fishermen navigate low water levels in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Water brought in

Many Iraqis now rely on water being transported in, but even this can be contaminated with pollutants, the report said. The authors spoke to a family in Basra that pay $7 for a tonne of water, or about 1,000 litres, enough to last a week but at a prohibitive cost for many in Iraq. The water is not fit for drinking but the family said it was adequate for personal hygiene.

Its report highlights similar challenges, not only in Basra but also in Kirkuk in northern Iraq, Dohuk, in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq and Diyala, a province in neighbouring Iran.

Officials, activists and Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources staff members interviewed by the report authors said oil was contaminating irrigation water around Kirkuk, home to the oldest oilfield in Iraq, while Diyala, home to a river of the same name, had seen incidents of mass fish death because of pollution.

Vulnerable freshwater

Last month, a UN official told The National that about half of Iraq’s schools lacked basic water, sanitation and hygiene, putting at least 7.25 million Iraqi pupils at risk of disease.

Wednesday’s report said the Iraqi government was aware of the issue, noting the Environment Ministry had commented on water pollution early this month, telling the Iraqiya news network that “the main reason causing water pollution is that most sewage wastewater pours into rivers without treatment”.

The ministry said water treatment works in Baghdad were overwhelmed and could only meet the needs of five million of the capital city’s eight million residents.

Despite record oil revenue this year, with monthly state profits frequently surpassing $10 billion, Iraq often fails to invest in critical infrastructure. Ministries instead prioritise salaries, hiring increasing numbers of staff.

As a result, when oil prices fall there is often no budget left for capital expenditure, as happened in 2014 and during the 2020 Covid-19 crisis.

Much critical water infrastructure in Iraq has subsequently been built with aid funding.

On the outskirts of Basra, a large $200 million water desalination plant was recently completed after years of delays, funded largely by Japan and intended to supply water for 400,000 residents in the city of 1.5 million.

iraq's water quality in decline despite record government spending, report finds

In 2018 the Shatt Al Arab river became highly saline. AFP

The UN Development Project led reconstruction of most of Mosul’s water infrastructure, while in Basra, after Covid-19 had crushed Iraq’s oil revenue, the US Agency for International Development restored water infrastructure for up to 650,000 people.

Along with support from the Netherlands, about one million people have benefitted from aid in Basra’s water sector, the UN project said.

The fragile situation Iraq now faces — after 20 years of conflict and several hundred billion dollars of oil revenue and reconstruction funds — is not dissimilar to the harsh conditions before the 2003 US-led invasion.

In January 2003, an international team of researchers from 20 NGOs conducted a nationwide study of water quality in Iraq and warned that 60 per cent of the population was at risk from nearly 500,000 tonnes of raw sewage pumped into Iraq’s waterways.

The report said inadequate power supply, from which Iraq still suffers, was one reason for the failure to treat the sewage.

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