Major protests have erupted in several Iraqi cities over the past two weeks due to water and power cuts. The movement started in the southern region of Basra, and then spread to Kerbala and Baghdad. Our Observers in Basra explain that the protesters blame corruption and poor management by the authorities for these cuts, which are particularly painful since Iraq is currently experiencing temperatures nearing 50 degrees Celsius.
Protest in Basra.
“It’s not rare for us to go four or five days without a single drop of water coming out of the tap”
Hussein is 25. He lives in Basra and has taken part in the protests.
“Everything started on July 8 with the death of a protester in Basra. His death caused outrage and the movement grew larger. Protesters are angry because we lack basic necessities: we don’t have water, we don’t have electricity. It’s summer and it’s 50 degrees outside. On top of all this, the economic situation is catastrophic: many young people are out of work [Editor’s Note: the youth unemployment rate in Iraq is between 33 and 37 percent, according to the Ministry of Planning], even though we live in the richest region in Iraq. [Editor’s note: the country’s biggest known oil reserves are located in the Basra region].
Water and electricity cuts are nothing new. Ever since the United States’ invasion of Iraq [in 2003], we have had cuts every summer. But it’s worse today: Turkey is building a dam on the River Tigris, and now it’s not rare for us to go four or five days without a single drop of water coming out of the tap.”
According to the Iraqi government, a massive development project in Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia region is the cause of this year’s particularly severe water shortages. In order to irrigate arid lands, 22 dams are being built on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These are the two main rivers that cross Iraq, providing 95 percent of the water used in the country’s industries and 80 percent of the water used by citizens. The Ilisu dam, located near the border between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, has now started to fill up. According to the Iraqi government, the project is responsible for an 80 percent drop in water flow to Iraq.
Climate change is another major cause of water shortages, according to Hassan al-Jalabi, the Iraqi minister for hydraulic resources. On July 14, he told the United Nations that 90 percent of historically fertile lands in Iraq now faced desertification.
“Without air conditioning, it’s hard to breathe”
Our Observer Hussein told us that Basra residents have installed large water reservoirs on their rooftops and that they now have to buy water from private companies. It’s expensive: 1,000 litres of water – which is only enough to last a few days for an average family – cost about 25,000 Iraqi dollars, or 18 euros. The average monthly salary in Iraq is equivalent to 560 euros.
“When it comes to electricity, it’s even worse. Without air conditioning, it’s hard to breathe. The government promised that we would have 20 hours of electricity per day this summer, but Iran stopped providing our country with electricity mid-June, so now we only have between four and six hours of electricity per day.”
Iran cut its electricity exports to Iraq in mid-June because it was having difficulties providing enough electricity for its own citizens. This was a major blow for Iraq, which imports about 20 percent of its electricity from Iran.
An air conditioning unit in Basra.
Hussein believes the Iraqi authorities are making the situation worse.
“The security forces became much more violent after the Iraqi prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, came to Basra on July 13. During this visit, he promised to allocate 3 billion dollars to the province [about 2.5 billion euros]. But people here are getting desperate: every new government makes promises, but nothing ever changes.”
A protester in Basra.
Protest in Basra.
“People are wondering where all the money goes”
Ali – an Iraqi journalist who asked to stay anonymous – says that corruption is at the root of the current unrest:
“The origin of all problems is corruption. [Editor’s Note: Iraq is ranked 167th out of 175 countries by Transparency International]. The annual state budget is more than 86 billion euros, so people are wondering where all the money goes. In Basra, we haven’t seen a new factory, a new refinery or any investment in infrastructure for many years. People find this unfair, especially since 90 percent of petrol transits through our region [Editor’s Note: Basra is the only port through which Iraqi petrol is exported].
This wave of protests isn’t the first one, but it’s larger than in previous years: there are more protesters, it’s lasting longer, and there have been deaths [Editor’s Note: At least 11 deaths have been reported since the start of the protests].
If the funds promised by the prime minister actually come through, they’ll still disappear like a drop of water in the desert. Corruption is so widespread among local officials that I doubt we’ll see any actual change.”
In late June, violent protests also wracked southwest Iran, for the same reasons. Protesters decried the combined effects of climate change and mismanagement of water resources by the authorities.
Published here first.