Snipers And Sewage: Why Oil-Rich Basra Is A Symbol Of What's Wrong With Today's Iraq

Ten years after Saddam's fall, Iraq's richest city is rife with courruption and can't even clean up after itself.

Outside a shop in Basra
Outside a shop in Basra
Birgit Svensson

BASRA - Samarkand al-Juburi, an Iraqi poet, has just made the 450-kilometer trip south from the capital to Basra, and jumps under the shower to freshen up.

The water that comes out of the shower nozzle is salty. So is the water from the sink faucet. Later, at the Basra House of Culture, where she meets with fellow writers from Iraq’s third largest city and reads some of her poems, she finds out this is normal. It’s the same water problems all over Basra.

Some hotels and households have filters, but all they do is reduce the saltiness, not eliminate it. So drinking water in Basra has to be bought, and that’s expensive for the city’s two million inhabitants.

The reason for the salty water is flooding from the Persian Gulf into the Shatt al-Arab river that turns fresh water into salt water. The area’s crops and famous date palms are suffering along with residents – of the 30 million date palms that used to grow along the Shatt al-Arab only 12 million remain. Saddam Hussein bears part of the responsibility for this: he had countless trees felled or burned so that his troops had a clearer picture of what was happening on the opposite shore – in Iran – during the 1980-1988 war.

If Basra -- with its sandstorms and dry desert winds -- is one of the hottest places on earth, it’s also the richest Iraqi city and could easily afford proper drinking water, a permanent supply of electricity, paved streets, and a functioning garbage collection system. But not much works smoothly, and in the last decade all that’s been built are two bridges, a new hospital and another university campus. A sports complex called “Sports City” has been under construction for years and so far all deadlines that have been set for its completion have been missed.

A man and woman make their way up the Shatt-al-Arab in Basra - Christiaan Briggs

The former Sheraton Hotel, which was damaged by bombs, plundered and then burnt, has now been entirely rebuilt, is the only 5-star hotel in Iraq that even begins to live up to that category. On the bank of the Shatt al-Arab River, the angular concrete building of what is now called the Basra International Hotel is surrounded by heaps of garbage, open sewers – and streets with potholes, some knee deep.

Watan Street, where there used to be movie theaters, nightclubs, and casinos, is now just a shadow of its former self, the old buildings empty and dilapidated. The cheesy Shawarma snack shops that have mushroomed here, and the mostly young men hanging out, do not make a good impression.

Where’s the money that Basra takes in daily? The city gets $1 dollar for every barrel of oil: at 2.25 million barrels a day, that’s $2.25 million. It will also be taking in money from the whole oil infrastructure, transport and distribution. Presently, up to 3 million barrels of Iraqi oil come onto the world market daily – the lion’s share from Basra and the rest from Kirkuk up north. That much oil hasn’t been pumped out of Iraqi soil for 30 years.

Saddam's deadly legacy

The city’s sorry state used to be blamed on Saddam Hussein. It was retaliation against the mostly Shiite inhabitants following their revolt against the dictator after the second Gulf war – a revolt that failed. Countless mass graves, some of which have to this day not been opened, bear silent witness to Saddam’s gruesome revenge. Baghdad also blocked investment in infrastructure and turned Basra into Iraq’s poorhouse.

When foreign troops moved in 10 years ago, Basra residents used the Shatt al-Arab River for both bathing and clothes washing. There were epidemics of cholera and diarrhea. All of this is largely a thing of the past, but Basra is still poor. A pharmacy owner on Watan Street says: “What’s holding up progress today is corruption.”

Iraq’s parliament in Baghdad had made a move to dismiss Minister for Youth and Sport Jassim Jaafar – a member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ruling coalition – who has been accused of corruption in conjunction with the building of the Basra Sports City, but failed to get enough votes in support of the dismissal. "They have each others’ backs,” fumes the outraged pharmacist.

Members of other parties have also been accused of filling their pockets in Basra. City residents demonstrated for years in an attempt to get a member of the small Shiite Fadhila Party, Basra’s former governor Mohammed al-Waili – also accused of big-time corruption – to step down, to no avail. He stayed put and was finally gunned down by unknown killers.

After Samarkand al-Juburi finishes her reading at the attractively renovated House of Culture in the old part of Basra, those present get into a discussion about the future of their city. Wistfully, some participants remember the days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 when residents of the small oil emirate used to come to Basra to have a good time.

"They filled Watan Street and every weekend all hell would break loose," said one man. However, since clerics started having more say in Iraq, and particularly in Basra, something like that would now be unthinkable. Not a single shop in Basra sells alcohol anymore.

Basra at night (Wikimedia)

When in 2003 the British took control of Basra, even bus drivers employed by the public transportation system were selling beer on buses to boost their meager salaries. But today anyone caught with alcohol in their car trunk during random checks gets slapped with a hefty penalty.

Many are pinning their hopes on the new governor, Khalaf Abdul Samad, who while a good friend of Prime Minister al-Maliki, is "only blind in one eye." People trust that he will at least stem the tide of corruption.

In one young poet’s view, religious hardliners – followers of Shiite cleric Muktada al-Sadr – don’t stand much of a chance in Basra any more. He believes Iraq is following a secular path.

Samarkand says she’s heard the new governor returned from exile in the Netherlands. "The Dutch have experience with water," she says optimistically. Along the Shatt al-Arab there are huge posters, some showing the new governor, others al-Maliki. Regional elections are coming up on April 20 – fostering new hope in Basra’s citizens

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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