Pollution and corruption are choking the life out of Basra | Diaa Jubaili
Pollution and corruption are choking the life out of Basra, says resident and writer Diaa Jubaili
Salty, foul water flows through the pipes of Basra: a city racked by high unemployment, broken healthcare and education systems, drugs smuggled in across the borders and cooked up at home with Iranian raw materials. Millions of landmines from wars past hem in the city, even as militias the armed wings of Shia political parties, given new life by the fight against Isis tyrannise its people. Even the clean, clear river that my brother and I used to fish from is now a muddy creek filled with sewage and sickness.
All this and more came together in the explosion of fury in Basra this past week, driving thousands of citizens into the streets to demand their rights. This unrest may surprise many in the west, where the conflicts of the region are often seen through the lens of sectarian strife. Yet many Iraqis are tired of Iran treating Iraq like its own backyard a shared Shiite faith has been used to exploit Iraqs wealth rather than build up its people. Most of the demonstrators are young people, under the age of 30. They were children when the United States, the United Kingdom and others invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Husseins regime paving the way for Irans expanded influence through the Shia parties that took power in Baghdad.
The demonstrations began peacefully I joined the first crowds that gathered around the local government offices in al-Sai, the heart of Basra. Some protests turned into rioting, although no more than the usual vandalism that accompanies any popular uprising. Soon, though, pro-Iranian parties and Iran itself seized on the issue.
When Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Iranian government deemed them angry citizens. Yet now they call the looting of the Iranian embassy in Basra a brutal and savage attack. At the protests spread past my apartment in Basra, I saw how any violence from the protesters was met with even greater violence from government authorities. The live bullets fired by the military and police, killing and wounding many, have only made matters worse. Popular anger threatens to drag the city into outright civil war.
Yet the government has ignored the true meaning of this mass mobilisation to the point of absurdity. The prime ministers initial response was to announce that he would dispatch several tankers of fresh water to the residents of the city as if the problem was just a water shortage. This only makes it clearer how much the government has stood idly by as this tragedy has unfolded, and how little they understand. You would think the prime minister was talking about another country entirely, not an Iraqi province, especially not one that exports the oil and gas that support the other 18 provinces.
Services have declined as bribery has flourished, with a percentage demanded alongside every deal signed by local officials, ministers, or party chiefs. The bribes have choked off all but the simplest industry in Basra, as investors balk and abandon projects in the face of arbitrary demands. Instead, the parties are under pressure to increase the amount of imported goods and services especially Iran. Iranian construction companies, banks and even hair salons compete with Iraqi firms. Already, most products in Basra are imported from Iran, even as the Islamic Republic seeks to boost its exports to Iraq from $10bn to $15bn. Iraq even imports natural gas to run its power plants, despite huge reserves of gas in Basras oil fields. The ministry of oil simply burns any gas produced in the extraction of oil, polluting the environment further.
Some major oil companies have invested in Basras oil fields, yet the level of bribery involved is unmatched around the globe. Despite all the local development projects promised in the original contracts and all the claims by chief negotiator and former oil minister Hussain al-Shahristani we dont even see efforts to combat the fumes and smoke that pour out of the oil wells. Today, Basra suffers a slow death from the pollution and poison that flow from the industry that was supposed to be its saviour.
The swamps and rivers that religious pilgrims and orientalists once lovingly described in their travelogues are now rubbish dumps, where cholera bubbles to the surface each September and October. To make matters worse, the agricultural runoff and pollution dumped into the Shatt al-Arab waterway from Iranian fields drives saltwater further and further up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an environmental catastrophe that is taking with it livestock and fisheries.
The Iraqi government cannot rely on its victory over Isis to boost its popularity forever. Indeed, Basra played a large part in that victory, from its sons lost in battle to its natural wealth used to finance the campaign. Now Basra watches as that same wealth goes to rebuild liberated areas, even as its own standard of living declines. To avoid more demonstrations, and to absorb the anger of Iraqis in Basra and elsewhere, the government must abandon stopgap solutions in favour of addressing the root causes of these problems. They must demonstrate that they put the health and security of Iraq first and foremost.
Diaa Jubaili was born in 1977 and lives in Basra. He has published six novels and two collections of short stories, and his story The Worker was included in the anthology Iraq + 100: Stories from a Century after the Invasion (Comma Press, 2016).
This piece was translated by Andrew Leber