Iraqi city of Basra seethes over water crisis, unemployment

In this Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018 photo, Duhaa Mayaa, center, and her two children, prepare first aid material for injured protesters, in their home in Basra, Iraq. With brackish water pouring from the taps, failing city services and soaring unemployment, the southern Iraqi city of Basra has seen weeks of violent protests in the streets of the country's oil-exporting capital. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

BASRA, Iraq — The brackish water pouring from the taps of homes in Basra has caused stomach ailments and skin rashes for thousands in the southern Iraqi city once famous for its network of freshwater canals that gave it the nickname the “Venice of the East.”

The contaminated water, along with other failing city services and soaring unemployment in Basra, has fueled violent unrest since July in Iraq’s oil-exporting capital.

During a week of demonstrations, protesters set fire to government buildings and offices of Iranian-backed militias that they blame for mismanagement and profiteering while residents struggle with poverty.

“We have a treasure trove of oil beneath our feet, so how is it possible we don’t have drinking water?” said Zein al-Abedein Abdullah, a 19-year-old being treated at the overcrowded Sadr Hospital after the simple act of brushing his teeth with tap water at home.

The violence in Basra is threatening to spread to other cities in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland and the capital of Baghdad, where lawmakers are locked in a political struggle over who should be the next prime minister, with Iran and the United States each supporting rival factions.

There are concerns that sustained violence could also disrupt oil production in Basra, home to 70 percent of Iraq’s petroleum reserves, and at the country’s main seaport of Umm Qasr on the Persian Gulf. That could lead to renewed chaos just as Iraq is emerging from a long and bloody fight against the Islamic State group.

At least 15 people were killed and 249 injured in clashes between protesters and security forces in Basra so far this week, health officials say.

Embattled Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who has ordered an investigation into the violence, visited the city Monday, triggering renewed protests following a one-night hiatus. Hundreds of protesters gathered in a central square, chanting anti-government slogans, with some calling on him to leave. Their key demands have not been addressed, and it will be an enormous challenge for the government to turn around services that are in a state of disrepair after years of neglect.

At a minimum, it will take five weeks to bring potable water to central Basra, said Gov. Asaad al-Aidani on Sunday.

A combination of natural and manmade factors has created the crisis, shrinking the network of waterways that made Basra the “Venice of the East,” and also diminishing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which nourished civilizations since antiquity and made Iraq known as the “Land Between the Two Rivers.”

Streams and canals have become clogged with trash from dumping. A drop in seasonal rainfall, the use of upstream dams in Turkey, Syria and Iran, and a general crumbling of the country’s infrastructure all have contributed to the acute lack of fresh water.

A salty tide from the Persian Gulf has advanced into the marshlands north from the Shatt al-Arab waterway — the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers that Basra depends on — and seeped into once-lush farmland.