Basra health crisis: 17,000 admitted to hospitals for water poisoning

The southern Iraq city is facing an influx of illnesses blamed on the lack of clean drinking water

Protesters chant slogans demanding better public services and jobs during a protest in Basra, 340 miles (550 km) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Basra's health authorities said on Wednesday that more than 17,000 people have been admitted to hospitals over illnesses contracted from polluted drinking water.

There has been a surge in illnesses blamed on the lack of clean drinking water in the southern oil-rich provinceResidents and politicians say it is a symptom of the breakdown in public services caused by corruption and years of neglect by the central government in Baghdad.

"Over 17,000 patients have been admitted to local hospitals – 2,600 are suffering from diarrhoea and the rest are suffering from issues related to stomach pains," Alaa Hashim, Basra's Heath Ministry spokesman, told The National.

He said most people were treated and dispatched within hours.

"The quality of water in some areas is very poor, some areas in the province do not have access to clean water; no one can drink the water, not even animals," Mr Hashim said.

He said the ministry conducted water tests which found evidence of chemicals, ruling out any bacterial infections.

Waleed Kettan, the head of Basra's provincial council, is warning of a "catastrophic" health crisis, as hospitals in the province struggle to cope with the high number of patients.

"We have prepared [a] report that will explain the catastrophic health situation which is threatening many lives. The cases of poisoning are being recorded due to the poor quality of water," Mr Kettan.

If the central government did not take steps to eliminate the crisis, it would lead to a "disastrous catastrophe", he said.

For the past month-and-a-half, residents of the southern oil province have protested against the municipality's poor financial management, after it failed to provide adequate public services. Some say this is entrenched in corruption.


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The demonstrations have resulted in the deaths of several civilians, prompting Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi's caretaker government to release funds to improve water supply, electricity and health services.

But residents say they have seen no improvements.

"We don't have any clean water at home, the hospitals are flooded with patients, some are even unable to get the treatment they need, as not enough beds are available," Azhar Al Rubaie, a Basra resident, told The National.

"I have seen patients being treated outside, on the streets by nurses and doctors," Mr Al Rubaie said.

In response, Mr Al Abadi on Monday urged local authorities to address the issue and to ensure that sufficient water was delivered to the city.

The region also has chronic power cuts, a stagnant economy, widespread corruption, chronic unemployment and an agriculture sector devastated by drought.

Basra Governor Assad Al Edani said last Saturday that the province was not receiving its fair share of state funding to address problems, even though its port accounts for more than 90 per cent of Iraq's oil export revenues.

"Since I assumed office last year, Basra hasn’t received any money from the central government,” he said.

Mr Al Edani said oil companies must set up water desalination plants for residents if they wanted to continue operating there.

"The federal government must address this issue, otherwise we will take all necessary measures to protect our people in Basra," Mr Al Edani said.

"Every major oil company that is working in the province has to set up a desalination and sterilisation treatment plant if it wishes to continue working."

He said an agreement had been reached with the director of Basra Oil Company, Ihsan Abdul Jabbar, to ensure oil companies abide by the condition.

Lack of transparency and unreliable governance has been at the heart of Iraq’s woes, made worse by the effects of a costly three-year war against ISIS that coincided with a dip in oil prices.