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Liquid Threats:
Basra’s Barrier Against Poisoned Iranian Water Crumbling

Saleem al-Wazzan
A soil barrier built to protect Basra’s farms and oil fields from polluted water flushed out of Iran is leaking. It’s the latest in a long list of water woes between Iran and Iraq.
4.01.2018  |  Basra
A poisoned lake sits on Basra's borders. (photo: الصفحة الرسمية لرئيس مجلس محافظة البصرة على الفيسبوك)
A poisoned lake sits on Basra's borders. (photo: الصفحة الرسمية لرئيس مجلس محافظة البصرة على الفيسبوك)

A soil bund established to prevent the seepage of poisoned water from Iran into Iraq, in the Basra province, is starting to leak. It protects Iraqi land in Basra from a highly saline pool of water that stretches from the Shalamijah border crossing to the Majnoon oil fields.

“The damage that this lake filled with run-off could do is enormous,” says local researcher Kathem al-Ghilani. “That’s because the run off comes from private fish farms and sugar cane farms and the amount of water is huge.”

 The machines have saved us for the past three years. But the problem is still there and the Iranians have taken no action whatsoever.

After looking at satellite imagery, al-Ghilani believes that the Iranian water comes mostly from farming. “When Iran harvests its sugar cane, it empties farms of water and this water contains fungicides and pesticides. It’s highly toxic. There is also waste water from petrochemical plants, oil refineries and Iranian plastic factories,” he explains.

Al-Ghilani says that some of this water has already leaked into Basra, via the waters of the Shatt al-Arab inlet. This is where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet and empty into the sea, but in recent years a reduced flow of water from the rivers has seen the salt water creep inland.

The Karun river, which flows from Iran, is another tributary to the Shatt al-Arab and it also brings polluted water from the neighbouring country. The Iranians have previously denied flushing polluted water into the Karun.

Now the potential collapse of the soil berm is causing even more concern. There are cracks in the 80-kilometre berm and the leaks stretch for 50 kilometres. Farmers have already been forced off their land by increased salinity and pollution to freshwater, and there is fear that more may be pushed out of agriculture. Land used by oil companies is also at risk.

Up until now only temporary measures have been taken to try and prevent leakage in the berm, says Alaa Hashim al-Badran, head of the union of agricultural engineers in Basra. “There’s been a shortage of fuel for the machines working on the soil bund, although the machines have saved us for the past three years. But the problem is still there and the Iranians have taken no action whatsoever to reduce the size of the problem,” he adds.

The Iraqi government has not helped, al-Badran says. Because it’s an international border, the ministry of foreign affairs is supposed to do all the communicating with the Iranians. “But they have known about the problem for six years and nothing has been done,” al-Badran complains. “We do not feel that the federal government is cooperating with us to address this serious issue.”

The solution, al-Badran says, is to build a more solid berm.

On November 5 last year the Basra provincial council formed an emergency committee to deal with the ongoing erosion of the barrier.

Murtada al-Shamani, the head of the council’s border crossings committee, was cautiously optimistic. “If work continues without any interruptions or problems, maintenance could be completed in less than two months,” he says.

 His staff had already been able to repair about a kilometre’s worth of damaged berm, Faisal Abdul-Qader of the water department, added.

Almost everyone was critical of the Iranians. The Iranians had actually agreed to build a canal to drain the body of water into the sea, Jawad al-Imarah, a member of the provincial council, told NIQASH. “But up until today they have done nothing about this.” 

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