For the people of Tal Abta, it has been a problem for years. The district, in the northern province of Mosul, is only 73 kilometres away from the city of Mosul and it’s Tigris river. But the 50,000 locals here don’t see much of the water that irrigates the provincial capital - they are more likely to be waiting for the four government tankers that bring them drinking water. They have been thirsty for decades, they say.
More recently, local politicians here have been exploiting that need. One of the parties headed by leading Sunni Muslim politician, Khamis al-Khanjar, has launched a campaign named “We Won’t Go Thirsty”. It is supervised by Ayad al-Luwaizi, a member of Ninawa’s provincial council, and sees more water tankers coming to Tal Abta. They roam the streets decorated with signs that indicate which politician is sponsoring this benevolence.
Tal Abta residents are well aware that the politicians are trying to buy their votes. “Politicians thrive when we have problems and it’s actually in their interest not to find us any lasting solution,” one local, Massoud Fadhil, argued. “This means that we will always need them and they can supply us with what they consider to be favours. In fact, these are really just the most basic services and the state should be providing them.”
Politicians thrive when we have problems and it’s actually in their interest not to find us any lasting solution.
Drinking water is the biggest problem for his administration, conceded Mohammed Kanaan, mayor of Tal Abta. But it’s not a new problem. It started with the creation of the sub district in 1958, he noted. Before the security crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State in this province, there had been 24 tankers regularly bringing water here, Kanaan continued. Those numbers fell dramatically. But even after the situation with the extremists was resolved in 2016, only four tankers still come here and it’s not enough for everyone, Kanaan said.
The tankers belong to the government - “but the people of Tal Abta are paying for their fuel,” Kanaan said. “The local government, and local and international organisations have turned a deaf ear to our demands for a solution.”
In Tal Abta, the better off inhabitants buy bottled water. Lower income families have to wait for the arrival of government tankers. The only thing that officials have ever done is to sell water to people on the tankers for between $4 and $8 for 1,000 litres, they complain
“We’re not responsible for paying for the fuel in the tankers but we do it so that they come more regularly,” says Khaled Abu Walid, a Tal Abta farmer. “We sometimes wait for them for ten days but we really need them to come every five days.”
A field study conducted by Ninawa municipalities together with UNICEF confirms the problem. It found that 36 percent of Ninawa’s population is not served by the existing water network, and that these people turn to other sources for their water.
Ninawa’s director of water supplies, Nielsen Falbas, explains that there is no suitable source for drinking water in the Tal Abta area, adding that even artesian wells here don’t help.
Water tankers have signs so that locals know who to thank for their supplies.
A study by researchers from the universities of Tikrit and Mosul that looked at 27 artesian wells in southern Ninawa concluded that around 37 percent of the well water wasn’t suitable for agriculture, let alone human consumption. The quality of the groundwater continues to deteriorate, they said.
Falbas’ department has started a project to expand water networks south of Mosul but he admits that this won’t be completed for at least another two years. It was already long delayed due to the security crisis.
“Other than the current solution [the tankers] there is nothing to be done,” Falbas said. There could be more tankers in service and the plan to increase the water network has been included in the regional development plan for 2019, he noted.
For the inhabitants of Tal Abta, these may sound like encouraging words. But the plan Falbas is talking about was also part of the 2012 regional development plan. Work started on it in 2013 and according to the provincial water suppliers, about 3 percent of the project was completed before work was interrupted by the security crisis and the arrival of the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group. The plan still exists today but only on paper and nobody knows what happened to the equipment and materials bought to use on the first stage of the plan in 2013.
And this is far from the first such plan to bring back water - and therefore, life - to the Tal Abta area. During the 1990s, when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in charge, the government wanted to begin a massive irrigation project in this region, which would have seen plenty of water come to Tal Abta too. However a succession of wars and crises have stopped these plans from coming close to any sort of fruition.
For the locals of Tal Abta, they don’t care who supplies them with water. They just want more of it - which is why when the dust rises heavily on the road, a sign that the water tankers are coming, they run happily to the road, containers at the ready.