Rights group: Iraq government mismanaging water crisis

BASRA, Iraq (AP) — Increased rainfall in Iraq this year has helped alleviate a water crisis in Basra and may avert the kind of large-scale and violent protests that afflicted the southern province last summer.

However, a leading rights group and many Basra residents accuse Iraqi authorities of doing little to address the underlying conditions causing the water shortages and pollution crisis, warning of outbreaks of water-borne diseases and continued economic hardship for the governorate’s 4 million people.

“The government urgently needs to act,” Belkis Wille of Human Rights Watch told a press conference in Baghdad, where the organization released its report on Basra’s water crisis. “The people of Iraq have a right to know what is in their environment and how to keep safe.”

The report, entitled “Basra is Thirsty: Iraq’s Failure to Manage the Water Crisis,” said a full year after Basra’s violent protests , authorities continue to allow activities that pollute the province’s water resources despite the health risks to residents. Promised government projects to improve water quality have failed to materialize due to mismanagement and corruption, it said, and warned of outbreaks of water-borne diseases if the problems are left unaddressed.

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Basra’s acute water problems have been going on for decades, leading to outbreaks of protests every summer. The protests turned into a full-blown crisis last year after thousands of people were hospitalized due to stomach ailments and skin rashes blamed on the water quality.

The contaminated water, along with other failing city services and soaring unemployment, also led to violent protests and rioting in Basra, Iraq’s oil-exporting capital. During a week of demonstrations, protesters set fire to government buildings and offices of Iranian-backed militias that they blame for mismanagement and profiteering while residents struggle with poverty.

After years of meager rains, Iraq had seen its wettest winter in a generation, restoring freshwater marshes in southern Iraq and bringing welcome relief to the local population. The deluge of the winter months has slightly decreased salinity in Basra’s drinking water, as the revived rivers flushed the salt away and filled the marshes with fresh water.

But residents told The Associated Press the government has done nothing to address the problems. Waste water flows into the river and potable water pipes mix with sewage at a garbage dump in Basra. Although they cite a slight improvement in the water flowing through their taps, residents still use bottled water for drinking and cooking.

Agriculture is the main source of income for rural communities in Basra province. However, irrigation with damaging saline water has reduced crop production substantially.

“We don’t just say it is not fit for human consumption, it is not even fit for animal consumption, nor for agriculture and cattle,” said Hassan Ayoub, a student at Basra University.

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