War may be over but Basra's battle for clean water continues

Unicef is calling on Iraqi authorities to 'invest effectively' in services to avoid health crisis

Children in schools using water. Amnar / Unicef Iraq NOTE: For Basra water story
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On World Water Day on Friday, Ruqayya is reminded of the pain she suffered last summer after coming into contact with contaminated water in Iraq’s southern province of Basra.

Years of conflict, mass displacement, climate change and under-investment in water networks created a crisis that is affecting large parts of the country, especially the south.

The UN children's agency (Uncief) reported last year at least 50,000 children fell ill in Basra due to the province’s lack of basic services and toxic water.

"Five members of Ruqayya's family got sick last summer simply by coming in contact with contaminated water, including Ruqayya's brother who was three or four months old," Unicef's spokeswoman in Iraq, Zeina Awad, told The National. 

Ruqayya’s family had to sell some of their belongings to pay for her treatment.

“It’s extremely important for children to have access to clean water, water is a basic right. Without water there is no life,” Ms Awad said.

Rukayya with her mom and aunt. Zeina Awad / Unicef Iraq NOTE: For Basra water story
Ruqayya with her mother and an aunt. Zeina Awad / Unicef Iraq 

Water usage in Iraq is three times higher than the international average, a figure that only increases during the summer months, according to the UN.

The international body has warned that half of Iraq’s households are at risk of drinking contaminated water.

“Although Ruqayaa in a better condition, who knows what will happen when the temperatures go up and people will resort to using more water,” Ms Awad said.

Located where the Euphrates and Tigis rivers meet near the Gulf of Iraq’s marshy southern trip, Basra is one of the few cities in the region without an effective water treatment system.

Much of Iraq suffered greatly from a string of devastating wars in the 1980s and 1990s but Basra was hit especially hard as the city was on the front lines of the conflict with Iran.

The pollution of the province's water supply triggered waves of deadly demonstrations last summer as residents demanded better services.

Poor governance has been linked to many of Iraq's problems, with international bodies routinely ranking the country on lists of failing states.

Unicef is calling for the Iraqi government to "invest effectively in infrastructure and services" that will ensure that every Iraqi child has access to clean and safe water.

But politicians that represent the province say the government has done little to respond to the crisis.

"The toxic water crisis continues, although the province has had pledges from UK, Europe and Japan, political conflict in government has prevented the funds from reaching Basra's authorities," Mohammad Al Tai, a politician representing Basra, told The National.

People in Basra are convinced that no changes are going to occur, Mr Al Tai said.

Upon visiting Basra, Unicef’s team found that residents were disposing of rubbish and sometimes waste water in rivers.

“People's behaviour has to change. They must have conversations [to understand] that pollution and climate change are irreversible,” Ms Awad said.

As well as a lack of safe water, the southern province and the region surrounding Iraq's main oil city suffers from constant power cuts, a stagnant economy, poor health services and widespread corruption.