Basra’s Poisonous Water Demands International Action

Violent protests erupted in Basra this summer in response to the deterioration of public services. At the centre of the unrest is a water supply crisis which Iraq can only solve with regional and international cooperation.

Expert comment Published 14 November 2018 Updated 19 November 2020 3 minute READ

Dr Nouar Shamout

Clean Water Specialist Modeller, Thames Water

A man collects dead fish from a reservoir at a fish farm north of Basra in August. Photo: Getty Images.

A man collects dead fish from a reservoir at a fish farm north of Basra in August. Photo: Getty Images.

In August, frustrations over crippled public services, drought and unemployment in Al-Basra governorate boiled over. The acute cause was a water contamination crisis. By the end of October, hospital admissions of those suffering from poisoning exceeded 100,000 according to health officials. Crops and animals in the rural areas have been severely affected by lack of water and current levels of salinity, with thousands migrating to Basra city.

The unrest continues, stoked by local and regional tensions, and even threatens the export of oil from Iraq’s only deep water port, Umm Qasr. But the crisis of water governance that triggered it endangers more than oil, and will exacerbate problems of child health, migration and interstate conflict.

Some responsibility lies at national and provincial levels. In summer, reduced river flows result in seawater intrusion. In spite of the region’s oil wealth and foreign investment, many water treatment plants that should be producing potable water were not built (or upgraded) to deal with the high salt levels. This, together with the poor management of upstream urban sewage, agricultural and industrial effluents that end up in the river, was responsible for this summer’s contamination. There is an ongoing legal investigation into why 13 desalination plants provided by donor countries during the reconstruction have not been working since their completion in 2006.

But this is also a problem that crosses national boundaries. Al-Basra governorate is wedged between Iran and Kuwait, with its Shatt Al-Arab River leading to out into the Persian Gulf. Turkey, Syria and Iraq contribute through the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, both of which join to form the Shatt Al-Arab at Al Qurnah. About 71 per cent of the flow comes from the Tigris and the Euphrates, the remainder from the Iranian rivers Karkheh and Karun. Basra city, the economic capital of Iraq, and its suburbs are heavily dependent on Shatt Al-Arab River to meet demands for water.

Historically, Basra city was famous for its date palms, fruits and vegetables. But this has changed as, with few agreements and no real governance of transboundary water, downstream flow has declined dramatically.

Turkey, Syria, Iran and northern Iraq have over the last 40 years erected 56 large dams, including many for hydroelectric power, along the Tigris and Euphrates basins, and enlarged agricultural (mainly flood) irrigation. The Euphrates River has lost more than 40 per cent of its flow since 1972.

Meanwhile, population in the region has increased almost eightfold to 130 million over the last century, with rising demand for fresh water. And climate change is increasing evaporation in summer.


Future development plans in Iran seem set to make the problem worse. The country, also suffering from desertification, has energy and agricultural plans that will affect the Tigris River. The Karun River hosts five large dams with two more planned and is heavily polluted with industrial, domestic and agricultural effluents, registering high salinity as it joins Shatt Al-Arab.

The Iranian government plans to operate the Daryan Dam for hydroelectric power on the Sirwan River, a major tributary to the Tigris River, by the end of 2018. This is expected to reduce the flow reaching Shatt Al-Arab by up to 18 per cent.

Still, the major hit is expected when a 47 kilometre tunnel under construction near the dam is finalized later this year. It is expected to divert over 1.3 billion cubic metres of water a year – nearly all the water from the Sirawn – to irrigate areas of southwestern Iran.

The deterioration of water quality in southern Iraq is also destroying a delicate ecosystem along the river basin and in the Gulf, from which Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and their neighbours derive most of their drinking water (through desalination). High salinity levels have destroyed habitats and forced native species to move northward. A local video recently posted on Al-Jazeera showed thousands of dead fish floating on the surface of the rivers in Babi, central Iraq.

A recent fact-finding mission to Basra by the Norwegian Refugee Council recommends that donor governments support the development of a framework that supports more equitable water sharing. It is in the interests of those who share the rivers to work on it together as an urgent diplomatic necessity. Cleaning up and enabling ecological regeneration will take a comprehensive effort and integrated action plan involving all the states concerned.

The Iraqi government should build a solid position in readiness for such a plan by:

  • Reducing waste and effluents dumped into Shatt Al-Arab River, thereby setting an example for other states and strengthening its position at the negotiation table.
  • Developing a transparent and robust Integrated Water Resources Management plan capable of addressing the current challenges and recognizing upstream and downstream capacities and needs along the Iraqi rivers.
  • Investing in a more efficient agricultural sector through change in agricultural methods and crops to adapt to the reduced water conditions and increasing aridity.
  • Developing the skills and research to increase predictability of climate change Impacts on the water resources and to build response plans to mitigate such impacts.
  • Using data and assessments on water to inform recovery and reconstruction efforts taking place in northern Iraq. These must address demand and rebuild for resilience and a reduced water footprint.

Basra’s bad water problem has come to symbolize inequality in the south of Iraq – where only the rich can afford drinkable water. But this is not just Basra’s problem. Without urgent cooperative action, over-exploitation of rivers by the countries that share them will destabilize the entire region.