Basra's water supply hangs in balance as critical project delayed

Iraqi cities need large-scale desalination plants to alleviate water woes, but projects have been slow to get moving

Children cool themselves during a power cut in Basra. Soon the city may not have enough water. AP
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Supplies of drinking water in Iraq’s second most populous governorate of Basra are under threat, experts have told The National, despite massive international efforts to rehabilitate treatment plants and meet rising demand.

The crisis last gained international attention in late 2018, when water levels plummeted in the Tigris and Euphrates in a drought worsened by dam construction in Turkey and Iran.

"The problem could be repeated and we could see one even bigger than what we saw in 2018, but there is a possibility to avoid it if they find solutions,” Jassim Al Maliki, an expert with Basra Agricultural Department, tells The National.

The Tigris and Euphrates, which comprise 90 per cent of Iraq's fresh water, meet at the Shatt al Arab, which flows into Basra.

All three rivers are in crisis.

The Shatt al Arab was once the city’s main source of freshwater, but falling water levels have led to seawater encroachment from high tides, making the river highly saline.

In 2018, worsening salinity caused ageing pumping systems for water treatment and sewage plants in the city to break down, amid power cuts and a surge in oil pollution.

The resulting mix of untreated sewage, salty water and oil contamination caused up to 120,000 people to fall ill, overwhelming hospitals.

Al-Ashar River, is seen filled with sewage and trash, runs through in the old city of Basra, Iraq September 12, 2018. Basra residents say salt seeping into the water supply has made it undrinkable and sent hundreds to a hospital. Picture taken September 12, 2018.  REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

It sparked a major international aid effort to fix the situation, with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and local religious authorities working together to revamp the city’s dilapidated water treatment plants.

Today, nearly one million residents of the city depend on this work for clean water, the UNDP said.

But Ali, an engineer who works in water treatment in Basra, who withheld his name for security reasons, tells The National not enough is being done to prevent another crisis.

“The water situation in Basra still isn’t looking good and a lot of work needs to be done to prevent another crisis, as occurred in 2018,” he says.

He says the government needs to address “the root causes, like investing in infrastructure, improving governance and management of water resources, and reducing pollution and environmental damage”.

Desalination delay

The complexity of Basra's water challenges were highlighted last year, when a major project to provide water to 400,000 residents of the city — which has a population of about 1.5 million — was revealed to be running years behind schedule.

The Hartha water treatment plant was commissioned in early 2014, with construction undertaken by a Japanese-French-Egyptian consortium and the Japanese development agency JICA.

The project was expected to be completed in spring 2017. An intense row over its status began during the 2018 protests in Basra over water quality.

Ann Nafi Awfi, Minister of Housing, Municipalities and Reconstruction, said while giving evidence to parliament at the time that the disaster was in part caused by officials holding up crucial components in the ports.

Children in schools using water. Amnar / Unicef Iraq NOTE: For Basra water story

Iraq’s Integrity Commission accused customs officials of seeking money in exchange for sending on the components.

But subsequent protests, during which at least 20 demonstrators were killed and protesters took over one water treatment plant, caused the evacuation of foreign workers at Hartha, further delaying the project. Covid-19 caused more hold-ups.

The plant is now up and running — but water distribution lines will still take years to complete.

Last year, there were allegations in Iraqi media that a plan to build 37km of pipes for the project had been delayed by corruption. The new network is essential: the UN says about 45 per cent of water in Basra is lost through leaking, ageing pipework and illegal connections.

Ali says it will now take another five years for all the water lines to be completed, saying "a lack of transparency” still blights the sector.

Amid the delays to the Hartha project, he says it is currently running at 5,000 cubic metres per hour capacity, or 120,000 m3 per day, well below its designed capacity of 360,000 m3/ day.

Water by lorry

In the absence of Hartha’s completion, many residents of the governorate still pay around $40 per week for water delivered by lorry in a country where the minimum wage is about $250 — although millions are unemployed or underemployed.

A 2019 UN report said there were about 300 small-scale, privately owned desalination units that provide water, meaning the quality is also unregulated.

Mr Al Maliki warns that Basra residents could experience a scenario similar to 2018, or even worse, despite the number of water treatment projects that have opened or been revamped since.

“There is a temporary improvement now in Basra in terms of potable water,” Mr Al Maliki tells The National. “But we expect a very big crisis this summer, mainly in the Shatt al Arab due to dwindling water supplies.”

Iraq has around nine to 10 billion cubic metres of water stored in dams and lakes, thanks to the latest heavy rains, he said.

That’s far from the 59 billion cubic metres available in 2019, he added, the last time Iraq celebrated a record harvest, as it did recently.

The Abu Lehya, where drought has caused water levels to plummet, in Dhi Qar province in March. AFP

“These 10 billion cubic metres need wise management, Iraq needs to stop planting some crops, such rice and corn, and to stop wasting about 80 per cent of the Tigris and Euphrates water in agriculture, due outdated an irrigation system,” says Mr Al Maliki.

“That’s in addition to pollution from hospitals, sewage, power plants at a time when dredging and cleaning have been stopped for decades now.

“This is the greatest catastrophe.”

Chinese ambition

Included in Iraq’s draft 2023 budget is a proposal to limit irrigation waste, with a new fund for farmers who use more efficient drip irrigation, as opposed to flood irrigation.

After the 2018 crisis, Al Badaa Canal, which carries fresh water from Al Gharraf river in nearby Nasiriyah province, was also restored to stop leakage.

It now pumps from 4.5 to 5 cubic metres per second, says Mr Al Maliki.

“That amount is small but it is a real saviour for Basra as it serves many parts of the city, covering almost 50 per cent of the need for washing, but it’s not for human consumption,” he says.

Experts say this freshwater flows into the same leaking networks that carry salty and contaminated water from the Shatt al Arab, when water plants break down.

A palm orchard degraded by salt and pollution on a bank of the Shatt al Arab. AFP

“In the near future, Mayssan, Thi Qar and Samawa province will suffer along with all other southern provinces,” he says.

"Therefore, Iraq needs to focus on constructing big water treatment plants on the Arabian Gulf since we have a 60km coast and we have to construct a pipeline from the Gulf to central Iraq, at least to Baghdad to pump potable water.

“The government has to move more quickly, just like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, since we have good oil revenues — enough for such projects.”

For the past several years, Iraq has been considering a mega desalination project at Al Faw, near Basra, that could treat 1.2 million cubic metres per day, but if the Hartha project is any guide, successful implementation could be years off.

Until then, the UN Environment Programme has warned that Iraq’s water supply from the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as tributaries in Iran, will remain under threat from dam construction and drought.

That means more danger of high salinity, jeopardising water supply in Basra.

Last week, Mohammed Al Darraji, a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Al Sudani, told The National that “the Chinese investment in water desalination in Basra will go through but there isn't any clear vision from the Iraqi side about this”.

He said a British offer was also “under consideration”.

Updated: May 12, 2023, 9:49 AM