In August 2018 the travelled to Basra to determine the causes of the summer’s protests. It found that there was a mix of longstanding complaints about governance added to a new electricity and water crises that led to the demonstrations.
The immediate causes of the disturbances in Basra province were electricity and water shortages. First, Iran of electricity to Basra citing unpaid bills and high domestic demand. Turkey also began filling its new Ilisu Dam which caused a reduction in water down the Tigris River. Together this led to the start of the annual demonstrations.
There were also a series of larger issues with water that contributed to Basra’s problems. One was water contamination from oil companies in the northern section of the province. Another is growing salination as sea water is moving inland in the south. Together with the drop in the Tigris due to Turkey this created a huge water crisis. The situation got so bad that tap water could not be used for cleaning or farming, and over 17,000 people were hospitalized due to bad water. The government was rightly blamed for this situation. For instance, it knew for years about the Turkish dam, but . Likewise, salinity has been a growing dilemma that Baghdad has not dealt with. Instead, Premier Abadi promised a new desalination plant, but that would take months to complete.
There has been increasing demographic pressures upon Basra’s cities as well. The declining water levels and official neglect of farming has led to a steady migration of rural inhabitants to urban areas. Since 2014, around 10,000 displaced also arrived in the governorate fleeing the war with the Islamic State. Finally, a large number of Hashd fighters have returned home. This has increased demand for services and jobs, which are both in short supply.
Another issue is the nature of the oil industry. Basra is the economic heart of Iraq due to its large petroleum fields. However, oil only provides 1% of the workforce. Not only that but foreign companies have made deals with local tribes to hire their men to avoid conflicts. That has caused resentment as sheikhs are now in control of the few jobs that the oil corporations provide to Iraqis. There were several protests over these businesses hiring locals, and the Oil Ministry that it would meet these demands, but there are simply not enough opportunities to make any kind of real dent in joblessness.
Since none of these problems has been resolved ,and the government continues to be responsive rather than proactive, the complaints from Basra will continue. That means more protests in the coming years. This year, the crowds turned angry and riots broke out in Basra city. That had not happened before. That raises the question of whether these demonstrations will eventually metamorphize into a real political movement that will challenge the government or even turn into a popular revolt.
Norwegian Refugee Council, “Basra Fact Finding Mission Report #1,” 9/9/18
Reuters, “Iran resumes electricity supplies to Iraq,” 8/21/18
- “Iraq oil minister says new contracts will have local hire stipulations,” 10/8/18