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Basra's pollution documented in rare drone footage by NRC

Drone footage shows a water canal in Basra, choked with trash and plastic in October 2018. (Courtesy Norwegian Refugee Council)

The Norwegian Refugee Council has published new drone footage of pollution in Basra, including canals choked with plastic and the Shat al-Arab waterway clogged with sunken ships and metal debris. The NRC is starting to support 9,000 children in the most affected schools.

According to the report "more than 277,000 children are at risk of contracting water-borne diseases in schools which have just reopened in Basra, where water and sanitation facilities have totally collapsed, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned today." The footage included some residents of Basra discussing recent hospitalizations after children returned to school. Children have also become sick and suffered from diarrhea and other problems. One resident named Habib said that in his area of Shanashil that sewage flowed into the canal. Then the canal leads to the waterway. He notes that the water has become salty and his brother was poisoned. A teacher says that the school does not have enough toilets. She says in one there is only one toilet for 670 students. The school hasn't has lacked maintenance for five years and the water is salty. Students get sick, there is a lack of hygiene and some students get extreme vomiting, she says.

“With classes just reopening after summer, more than 800 schools are now breeding grounds for an epidemic of water-borne diseases, including cholera, as temperatures drop in the coming weeks,” said NRC’s Country Director Wolfgang Gressmann. “We are extremely concerned that the deteriorating water and sanitation infrastructure of schools and the overcrowded classrooms will catapult the city into a veritable public health disaster.”

MECRA covered the Basra protests in July 2018. Many people in the city have complained of lack of investment by governing authorities in infrastructure. Violence broke out during protests and riots. Locals said they were angry that the province produces large amounts of Iraq's oil but lacks basic services and suffers from extreme pollution. In September the US closed its consulate in Basra due to heightened tensions. These tensions and riots came after the Iraqi elections and despite promises by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to address the problems. Many in Basra who had volunteers to fight against ISIS believed the post-ISIS period would bring peace and investment. MECRA researchers spoke to residents of BASRA and confirmed these complaints.

Drone footage over the Shat Al-Arab river, laced with shipwrecks and metal debris. (Courtesy NRC)

The water crisis in the city and the region has already led to more than 110,000 people poisoned over the last three months, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. The NRC reports notes that "NRC is working with some of the worst affected schools to ensure children get safe, drinkable water, but the needs are overwhelming for local authorities and aid agencies." The report has some key data.

  • There are 508,000 children in Basra governorate facing severe drinking water shortages.

  • 800 schools have deteriorating water and sanitation infrastructures. 534 of them are located in the three most affected districts (Basra City, Shat Al Arab and Abu Khaseeb) and host 277,164 students.

  • This week, NRC is starting to support 9,000 children in the most affected schools in Basra governorate by rehabilitating latrines, water tanks and hand-washing areas in collaboration with the Directorate of Education.

“We urge donor governments to fund the response to this unfolding disaster before it’s too late,” Gressmann said. “As one primary school teacher told us: Everyone is at risk now.”

The challenge now will be for the current government being formed to address these concerns. Prime Minister designate Adel Abdul-Mahdi is still trying to staff his ministries, including key positions in the oil sector and interior, as well as defense. Without a government Baghdad will find it difficult to even begin to address years of neglect. The drone footage clearly shows this neglect.

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