Sunday, June 30, 2019

What's wrong with Basra? How a toxic brew of global warming, corruption and sectarian politics threatens Iraq

Protests against sub-standard social services, Basra, June 29, 2019
Recently, I attended a panel discussion on Iraq’s port city of Basra held at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.  While well aware of the problems facing Basra, I was unprepared to learn how bad conditions in the city have become.  The questions raised by current economic, environmental and health threats are not only highly problematic for the city, but suggest what could be the fate of MENA region and other port cities situated in hot climates throughout the world. 

Not only are residents deprived of essential services, often a threat to their health and even lives, but they inhabit areas prone to ongoing conflict and civil strife.  Basra has become the “perfect storm,” reflecting a problem which not only adversely affects Iraq, but many other countries and one which will spread as global warming and drought begin to take hold in many hot areas of the world.  Given these conditions, the danger is obviously the spread of civil strife. What the can we learn from Basra?

First, Basra has been the epicenter of wars and civil conflict since the 1980s.  Having visited the city during the spring of 1980, just prior to Saddam Husayn’s invasion of Iran, the city still lived up to its reputation as the “Venice of the Middle East,” given its many canals and economic dependence on the. Shatt al-cArab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers before they enter the Persian Gulf). 

All this changed after the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 in which the Basra region was severely damaged by the attacks by each side on the oil facilities located at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf.  Basra was almost cut off from the rest of Iraq during the Iranian invasion of 1984 when Iranian forces sought to seize the Fao Peninsula.  During the war, the Shatt al-cArab was blocked due to the sinking of many ships located in the port of Basra.

Basra is Iraq’s only major port and key access point for exporting oil. The devastation wrought on the Basra region by the Iran-Iraq War, which destroyed much of the oil industry’s infrastructure, was only made worse by the UN coalition's bombing during the Gulf War of January 1991.   Matters came to a head when Iraq’s conscript army, retreating through Basra from Kuwait after the US led coalition’s victory, spurred a large uprising - the  March 1991 Intifada) - which almost toppled Saddam Husayn and resulted in even more destruction, especially in the south of Iraq.

The US invasion of 2003 could have helped Basra rebuild if the large amount of reconstruction funds authorized by the US Congress had been spent on projects to improve the city’s water, electricity and health infrastructure.  We know in retrospect that the contracts awarded to US corporations by the Bush administration lacked a bidding process. Of the funds allocated, much were designed to improve the bottom line of the corporations receiving the award, and not Iraq’s needs.  Often projects weren’t even completed.  In short, the US invasion of Iraq failed to help Basra recover from the devastation of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and the March 1991 Intifada.

After the toppling of Saddam in 2003, Basra became locked in multiple political struggles.  One pitted the US occupying authority against Iran which quickly became a major player in post-invasion Iraqi politics.  Another pitted  local tribal leaders against one another as they tried to gain control of reconstruction funds and the local economy, and became involved in widespread smuggling. Yet another conflict, more traditional in nature, pitted the Basra region against Baghdad, much like the conflict between Bagdad and Erbil, the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Traditionally, Basra region has felt marginalized by Baghdad.  Finally, a political struggle developed between Shi'a political parties and militias to control the city’s lucrative economy.

Meanwhile, conditions for residents of Basra have continued to deteriorate.  Between August and November 2018, 100,000 Basra area residents were treated for water poisoning (Reuters 2018). No one can explain why 13 water treatment plants completed in 2006 are still not functioning.  Ministry of Health data show Basra’s tap water’s chemical contamination level is 100% while its bacterial content stands at 50%. Film: Iraq's Poisoned Rivers

The main problem is the dependence of Basra and the surrounding region on the Shatt al-cArab for its fresh water supply.  However, with the drought which has plagued Iraq since 2007 and the damming of the Euphrates River in Turkey, the Shatt al-cArab has shrunken in size enabling saline water to enter from the Persian Gulf.  Not only has this process irreparable damaged the date industry along the river, but is has decreased the availability of fresh water.  Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources indicated in 2018 that Iraq's river had lost 40% of their water during the past 20 years.  Iraq's farmland is shrinking by 5% each year. Iraq's water crisis is intensifying

As noted by the panelists at the Middle East Institute forum, many farmers in the Basra region suffer not only from water shortages but from toxic chemicals which have entered their cropland.  Iraq's fishermen, both those who formerly fished in Iraq's famed marshlands (al-ahwar), and in the Shatt al-cArab and Persian Gulf have abandoned fishing because it no longer provides a livelihood for their families. As many have tried to become farmers, that has created conflict with farmers who already own land.

After Saddam’s ouster, a new patronage system was established in Basra.  Local residents became dependent on political parties and later militias for jobs and social services. Thus, when conditions began to seriously worsen, many Basrawis were initially reluctant to join demonstrations protesting the lack of electricity during the brutally hot summer.  Because parties and militias often threatened protestors, the prospect of being attacked for joining a demonstration was a deterrent.

However, that has all changed this year.  With temperatures recently reaching 120 degrees (49 degrees Celsius), demonstration have been ongoing with security forces using live ammunition to contain them.  The intensify and size of the demonstrations threatens the government of Prime Minister  'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi. Two parties, the Sadrist Trend, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Hikma Party, led by 'Ammar al-Hakim have been highly critical of the government in Baghdad and its inability to address Basra’s problems.

What then do conditions in Basra tell us about Iraqi politics and what are its implications for urban areas in similar climate zones elsewhere?  First, it shows the limits of sectarian “divide and conquer” politics.  With conditions in Basra having reached a tipping point which now makes them intolerable to all inhabitants, trying to set different groups against one another politically, whether by sect, ethnicity or tribal affiliation, seems to have run its course and no longer be effective. 

Second, the Basra crisis demonstrates the extent to which global warming has profound implications for the politics of nation-states in zones where such warming threatens local residents' ability to remain in their places of residence.  With water supplies increasingly limited, and food contaminated with toxins also a problem, a national effort will need to be made in such conditions to prevent economic and social dislocation from creating civil strife and political instability.

Third, many LDCs will soon discover that they cannot afford to sustain a highly corrupt and nepotistic form of politics which undermines the central state’s ability to address problems created by climate change.  The threats caused by global warming have yet to be frontally addressed by political analysts.  However, as the deteriorating living conditions in Basra clearly indicate, central states ignore problems caused by climate change at their own peril.  Indeed, the government of Prime Minister 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi faces a threat of collapse, in large measure, due to its inability to solve the Basra crisis.

Finally, Iraq may find that its key source of revenues, namely its ex[rot of oil, is disrupted if social and economic conditions in basra continue to deteriorate.  Already, oil companies, such as Exxon Mobil, have withdrawn from efforts to drill in the Basra region. With Iraq dependent for more than 95% of its foreign revenues on sales of oil in the world market, such a development would pose extremely serious problems.

As it is, the demonstrations in Basra have weakened the Federal Government in Baghdad.  Prime Minister 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi will find it more difficult to arrive at an accommodation with the KRG about the status of Kurdish oil production and the distribution of revenues from its sale. He will also find it more difficult to fend off efforts by Iran and the United States to influence his policy decisions