Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Basra: The Venice of the Middle East?

June 25th, Basra, Iraq

It was nine o’clock when we departed Suleimaniya, in the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The captain announced the temperature was 32 degrees; two hours later when we landed in Basra, it was 46 degrees. Basra is hot and dry, and it is said to be one of the hottest cities in the planet; coming from a tropical island, I am not used to it. Basra, the second largest city after Baghdad, is also the biggest port in Iraq. It is part of the historical Sumer and the proposed location of the Garden of Eden. It used to be called the "Venice of the Middle East" for its channels 

I am in Basra for the fourth time, this time to support local activists and to facilitate a series of seminar in four different Iraqi provinces to raise awareness about water issues in Iraq. The seminars are part of an advocacy campaign against the construction of construction of a mega dam project in the stretches of the Tigris River in Turkey; Ilisu Dam. Interestingly, Basra is the only Iraqi province where the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates flow. They meet in Qurna, where they form the Shatt al Arab before entering to the Gulf. Basra is also the most affected by upstream dam projects in terms of quantity and quality of water.

Sitting besides me on the plane was Ali, from Baghdad. I asked him where we were exactly because I saw dry land as I looked out the window. He said that we must have passed Baghdad and with a nostalgic tone, he said, “Iraq was not always like this, before the wars, in the 1990’s Iraq was green. Something has happened on the weather.’ I mentioned that I worked on water issues and that I knew that the effects of upstream dams have a big role on this. I told him about a recent NASA study that pointed out to alarming rates of water depletion on the Tigris and Euphrates basin and about the global movements that are struggling against water privatization and mega projects around the world. I know, I am too intense, but he follows me.


One of the main topics of discussion in Basra is electricity. Almost like an obsession, everyone talks about electricity. Are we on the national grid, “watani” or on the generator, “mualid”? What we simply call electricity is divided into 2 parallel systems: national electricity running for 2 hours and a system of private generators that run 4-6 hours. There is electricity for 6 hours a day, or less and the rest of the time the electricity is supplied privately, for those who can afford it. This is particularly critical in the summer, when the temperature is unbearable (130 degrees Fahrenheit). The obsession is for a reason! This problem has affected the lives of Iraqis for the past 10 years. They have to pay vast amounts of money to buy amperes from the private generators.

Women and children suffer the most from this as they stay at home during the hot summer. Here in Iraq, any women can tell you how many amperes she needs to run her fridge and keep the house cool; something that only electricians would know in other parts of the world. When electricity changes back to the main “national grid” in the afternoon, Iraqis just want to relax and to take a nap, as sometimes they cannot sleep at night because it is too hot and uncomfortable to sleep. Basic needs like electricity that we in the west take for granted are the struggle of every Iraqi. It is hard to imagine that something as basic as electricity is lacking in an oil producing country as Iraq.

Basra has other basic infrastructure problems, like lack of waste management, and problems with water quality. On the first one, I am afraid I have not much information on why there is no proper waste management; all the streets are full of garbage and sewage water. On the second one, I have a lot to say, as it is the main reason of my travel to Basra. The water quality issues are mostly salinization of the water coming from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that form the Shatt Al Arab. This salinization is due mainly to decreased flow of the two rivers, causing the salty water from the gulf to enter into the river. The reasons are upstream damming and re-routing of the Tigris and Euphrates and its tributaries that feed into the rivers and push the salty water into the sea. Over the last 20 years, dam projects in Iran and Turkey have reduced the water of the Euphrates and the Tigris significantly; some studies reveal reductions of over 75% on the Euphrates. Iran has also dammed the Karun river that feeds directly and contributes around two thirds of the Shatt al Arab. This has caused tremendous damage to the water supply, agriculture and herding.

One of my friends in Basra is studying at the Marine Science Center in Basra. He is doing his research on a fish called Tinalosa Elisa, he is studying some sort of fish management. He goes to the sea with the fishermen, and he does different measurements like the size of the fish caught. He is also aware how the water problem affects the fishing industry. For example this fish goes from the sea to the fresh water to nest, so the fact that the sea is entering the river, means that now some fish have to go further upstream to lay their eggs. Some species are not able to adapt to these fast changes. He wanted to illustrate the salty water problem, so he got his pH, conductivity meter to show me. We measured three sources: tap water, RO filtered water and bottled water. Results were 1290 parts per million, 109 ppm and 42 ppm for bottled water. A difference of 30 times more salty from tap to bottled water. Which one would you drink?

Basra is highly militarized but has managed to be generally safe. There are checkpoints every 100 meters and people has gotten used to it. I think that they feel generally safe. The youth I spoke with in Basra, some of them university students said they are tired. They are tired of corruption, tired of the security situation, tired of unemployment, tired of the electricity problem. They are discouraged; they think there is little hope to solve their problems. They have adapted; if there is no electricity they resort to generators, they are always in survival mode. In spite of all the challenges of lack of infrastructure and services, people are very kind, always giving you a smile, always offering everything they have to make you feel at home.

In this context, the general perception of Iraqis is that the government is not in a position to demand other governments to give Iraq its fair share of water from the Tigris and Euphrates, when they cannot manage their own water or provide basic security or infrastructure to its citizens. This is the bittersweet reality of Iraq and this is why I keep coming back to the south and feel that supporting local activists working for a democratic, more transparent and inclusive Iraq is essential.

Some pictures from my trip to Basra