Where the Water Is So Polluted, It Poisoned 60,000 People in One Month

Where the Water Is So Polluted, It Poisoned 60,000 People in One Month

People swim in the Shatt al-Arab waterway near Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq.

SourceNabil al-Jurani/AP

Why you should care

Basra, Iraq, has some serious infrastructure problems — and they could contribute to ongoing regional instability. 

Two great rivers flow through the land that framed what was once known as Mesopotamia — the Tigris and the Euphrates — now defining borders around Iraq from Syria to its east and Turkey in the north. Cities and towns were built along these rivers and then new rivers that formed from their confluence. The river Shatt al-Arab was one such offspring, and Iraq’s southern city of Basra was formed on its banks, where it provided fertile land and thriving agriculture.

Today’s relationship between Basra and its river is a much more hostile affair. The Shatt al-Arab has become the sick child of the Tigris and Euphrates, bringing chaos into the city as so many people inundated local hospitals that doctors and nurses had to treat patients outside.

It’s believed that all of these people had been poisoned by the Shatt al-Arab — about 60,000 between Aug. 12 and Sept. 12.

The sheer volume of cases triggered the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights to start monitoring numbers. Its director, Mustafa Saadoon, places the number of cases at 1,500 to 2,000 per day and says an estimated 43,000 cases were logged in the first two weeks of September alone.

What’s driven the off-the-scale poisoning — which includes cases of abdominal pain and diarrhea — is equally off-the-scale levels of contamination. Dr. Shukri Al-Hassen, assistant professor of environmental pollution at the University of Basra, took readings of the Shatt al-Arab’s water on Aug. 29 this year. He detected traces of cyanide but says the real problem is simpler: The salinity of the water is too high, more than 22 times the recommended amount. This, in his professional opinion, is “big trouble.” The water also contained heavy concentrations of heavy metals, coliforms and fecal coliforms, the last of which can be put down to sewage contamination.

The reasons for Basra’s water pollution crisis are as complex as the region itself. Hassen says recent years have brought less fresh water into the river — owing to new dams upstream, including major dam projects in Turkey and Iran, and of wastewater drainage into the river.

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An Iraqi man collects dead fish from a reservoir at a fish farm north of Basra in southern Iraq on Aug. 29, 2018.

Source Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Neglect from the government and the municipality play its part too. The U.N. has shown concern about the aging pipes and infrastructure in Basra, which contribute to water contamination. The government blames the Basra governorate, but the governorate says it doesn’t receive enough government funding to fix the problem. Some of the residents can’t afford to play this crisis out, as the increase in salinity has meant that there is limited water available for agricultural use. The crisis has already triggered the migration of an estimated 3,780 people whose livelihoods are under serious threat.

What’s more, the fear is that untreated infection could lead to a cholera outbreak. If that happens, Saadoon says, the hospitals are equipped to provide only about 10 percent of the necessary services.

Iraq’s leaders have acknowledged the poisoning problem — but they pegged the numbers much lower, claiming a mere 1,500 cases where the Department of Health counted 17,000. While government officials say everyone sick has been treated, the masses have drawn their own conclusions, torching government offices and demanding authorities take more action.

“The situation in Basra is a cumulative effect of failure at three levels of responsibility,” says Dr. Ali al-Albayati, a board member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. “The water originates from another province. It goes through a complex network of pipes, and then water is outputted at the R Zero water plants.” Some groups are working to clean the pipes at those plants, like Iraqi Shi’ite militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. UNICEF has a project to increase the water supply, while Iraq’s Red Crescent Society focuses on purifying the existing water. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has called national and regional leaders to declare an emergency, and are providing free treatment, with help from neighboring governates. Al-Albayati says other provinces, like Dhi Qar, are also experiencing high salinity levels and water shortages.

Saadoon cautions that this is nothing new. “Protests have been happening in Basra since 2015. They stopped and then started again in July 2018,” he explains. Protests have intensified again this fall, as demands for basic services like electricity grow. To Saadoon, it’s obvious the government didn’t do its duty. And should a humanitarian crisis be on its way, the city could be looking at further disquiet in a very troubled region.

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