This piece was done in cooperation with Pulitzer Center.
While water, sanitation and personal hygiene are the primary means of defense to combat “Covid-19”, Iraqi cities, towns, and villages suffer from severe pollution of water sources for drinking and daily use, particularly in areas that suffer more than others from the outbreak of the new coronavirus epidemic. In the Al-Mudaina district, located north of the city of Basra in the south of the country, a population of 255 thousand people suffer from skin rashes due to polluted water. While the town has not yet recovered from the effects of the Coronavirus epidemic, nearly 100 people have been infected since the beginning of its outbreak in Iraq, and more than 20 people are still undergoing intensive treatment in the town’s only hospital. Hundreds of families have also lost their jobs and livelihoods after the imposing of a quarantine in order to limit the spread of the virus in this oil-rich town, which added more living, health and environmental burdens on the population.
According to one of its residents, a rash has spread in this town that surrounds oil fields, burning in the day and night, as a result of pollution in water sources for drinking and daily use. Dozens of the residents entered the hospital, the scenes of which remind us of a similar health crisis that struck the Basra province in the summer of 2018, due to polluted water, during which more than 120,000 people, mostly children, were affected. Maytham Ahmed, a civil society activist working at the Al-Namaa Center for Human Rights, points to growing concerns about the resurgence of the health crisis in Basra, especially after large numbers of people in the Al-Mudaina district were afflicted with skin diseases. Members of the family of the Maytham Ahmed hospital owners themselves have developed rashes or itchy skin. It is a rash that appears on the feet and on the back of the palm of the hand, and when it is rubbed continuously it could cause the skin to bleed. “The infection appeared among my family members, and when we went to the hospital for treatment, I was surprised that there were large numbers of people with the same rash,” Maytham explained, adding that his town has a large number of COVID-19 cases, compared to its population.
The local community fears the spread of this skin disease while still fighting against the epidemic with their modest human and technical capabilities. Maytham Ahmed indicates that the town lacks the health and environmental control over water sources for drinking and daily use, as these water sources are mixed with the water of drains, according to him, and therefore utilizing it leads to this skin disease. Maytham states that the “RO desalination plants are still using outdated and unhealthy means of transportation, and are intended for desalination of freshwater rivers, not saltwater with high concentrations.” The main cause of this pollution is the flow of the southern marshes water to the rivers that feed the town, as a result of the reduced flow of water in the Euphrates River. It is worth noting that, according to the researchers, the Iraqi marshes are full of the water of drains and water resulting from the process of washing lands after difficult droughts, which thus causing pollution of fresh rivers during periods of decline and turning them into incubators of diseases, in addition to causing environmental damage and destroying biodiversity.
Basra, the center of the province, is not better off than Al-Mudaina which administratively belongs to it. It also suffers from alarming water pollution, not to mention the pollution of its soil and air due to pollution of water channels and rivers branching from the Shatt al-Arab River, and the oil industry, and the aggravation of desertification areas, as it approaches 90% according to the environmental researcher Haider Ibrahim. The water channels of this southern city, which is described as the economic capital of Iraq, have been turned into a landfill, while its sewage water has turned into lethal rivers that flow into the city. Early one morning, before the October 2019 protests, I was heading to the city’s public transport hub, and on the way, I was very impressed by the reflection of morning sunlight on a river flowing in front of the “garage” gate. I asked the taxi driver about the name of that river. He looked at me mockingly, saying: What river are you talking about? It is dirty water. As we approached the gate I almost suffocated due to the smell of that sewage black water, and I told the driver to close the car window. He answered, “It seems that you are not a resident of this city. People here are used to these smells.” Of course, this water flowed to the Shatt al-Arab River.
I asked the environmental researcher Haider Ibrahim about the effect of this polluted sewage water on the health of the local population, and he told me that it causes several diseases, especially skin diseases, and also eliminates biological diversity, especially in the case of Al-Mudaina, where the polluted water mixes with river water. In addition to its danger to the population, polluted water poses a tremendous threat to aquatic organisms, because according to the researcher, water is a “living mass, in which fish and other aquatic organisms live, as well as organisms that are prone to extinction due to climate changes.” Pictures published by local residents show the death of fish in the rivers surrounding the town of Al-Mudania.
Most of the Iraqi cities are still suffering very poor health and environmental conditions: stagnated water puddles in alleys and residential areas; sewage lines pouring into rivers while the same networks get flooded during rainfall; locals of Iraqi villages and towns depend on salty, untreated water brooks for daily use, while they defecate in the open. The sewage water in Diwaniyah is discharged into the central Euphrates, in a branch of the Euphrates River in the city center. In residential areas without sewage systems, pools of water remain in the streets and form, over time, a black muddy substance with unpleasant smells, that attracts all kinds of flies.
Dr. Mohammed al-Askari, Dean of the Faculty of Biotechnology at Al-Qadisiyah University in Diwaniyah, points out that the stagnated water ponds in Iraqi cities increase the health risks for citizens, as they are, “incubators for mosquito reproduction, in addition to spreading malaria and other diseases.” Al-Askari believes that the problem lies in the design of the cities’ infrastructure, where unpolluted rainwater goes to the sewage, making them overflow during heavy rains, overflowing to the street, even entering the houses sometimes. Al-Askari has worked on spreading awareness and knowledge in the field of prevention of the coronavirus epidemic and its repercussions, and has conducted training courses for health personnel in Diwaniya governorate, in order to work on the QRT-PCR for the diagnosis of the Coronavirus at the College of Biotechnology.
A Historical Problem
Iraqi cities have historically been characterized by their inadequate cleanliness, and the spread of swamps and puddles in them. The Ottoman authorities have not made any tangible efforts during their rule of Iraq to improve the health of their citizens. In his memoirs on a trip to Yemen and other Arab countries, including Iraq, Danish mathematician and cartographer Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815) describes Basra as the dirtiest city in the Islamic world, where dirty kitchen water flows into its streets, that are not paved with stones.” In addition, there was a grave lack of attention to the environment and its protection from pollution, where graveyards and slaughterhouses were located inside the cities, clean drinking water was lacking and the drainage system for the polluted and heavy water was weak, according to the Iraqi researcher Ali Al-Sarhan.
The Iraqi writer and novelist Zuhair Al-Jazairi devoted pages of his novel “Bab Al-Faraj” to talk about the outbreak of plague in Najaf City during the late stages of the Ottoman rule, mentioning that water was a reason for the increased infections.The novelist focused a part of his narrative on the events taking place in this historical-religious city, as well as on the role of water in increasing the spread of the epidemic. When the death toll increased and the plague quickly spiraled out of control, the city doctor, or the Mirza, goes to Sheikh Kashef al-Ghiṭa, to tell him that washing the dead bodies worsens the conditions, due to the water flowing in the alleys, in the yard or the Hyderi Rawda, into the shrine of the Imam Ali, which demanded a legislation to stop it, and stop the funerals. Al-Jazairi presents a clear picture of the polluted water that is flowing in the city’s districts, where the doctor finds himself in a conflict between his knowledge of medicinal sciences and his deep belief in destiny. At the entrance of his clinic, he hung a verse of a poem by Ibn al-Rumi: “People will say it was a blunder of the doctor’s, but doctors’ blunders are strokes well aimed by fate”.
A research paper prepared at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the British University of Stirling warned that the sewerage system may increase the risk of the transfer of coronavirus. The paper, published on May 6, 2020, in Environment International, titled: “Covid-19: The environmental implications of shedding SARS-CoV-2 in human feces”, noted that many countries have imposed physical distancing measures to reduce the transfer of the disease from one person to another. However, it has finally been confirmed that infectious viruses can also be found in human feces, depending on previous analyses dating back to the virus SARS spread period (2003-2005). Given the difficulty of testing most people, it is difficult to predict the extent to which the virus spreads through human feces, so monitoring wastewater may be a useful tool to show where the virus spreads among humans. The study also noted that the management of human waste of infected patients poses a major challenge in hospitals.
Dr. Mohammad Al-Askari points out that the behavior of the virus is unclear, and that information about it is relatively scarce, since it is a new virus, with new information and updates on it developing on a daily basis. However, he thinks that the possibility of its transfer through the wastewater is a dangerous indicator, especially since Iraq, like other countries in the region, is not keen on treating it’s wastewater. It would, therefore, be vulnerable to the virus spread through this kind of water, if the scientific research has proven this. Al-Askari focuses in his talks on clean water and raising awareness among Iraqis as a front line to combat the epidemic, emphasising “the need to modernize infrastructure and sanitation systems, as well as find solutions to the waste crisis in the streets of most of the cities in Iraq, which act as an incubator for the spread of germs and flies.”
To conclude, most Iraqi regions and cities are no different from Al-Mudaina’s current conditions, and just as the colorful polluted water gushes out of the southern town’s taps, it also gushes out of the taps of many other towns and cities, increasing the burden of the spread of other diseases, in addition to the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, it can be said that the front line in the battle against the epidemic is more fragile in Iraq than elsewhere, since the country lacks the minimum required public health standards, such as clean, safe water for drinking, domestic use and cleaning.