09/30/2019, 18.36
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Basra, the ‘Venice of the Middle East’, poisoned by bacteria and pollution

For the city’s Chaldean archbishop, Iraq’s southern metropolis is facing a major environmental crisis. Half of the population has no access to water, whilst oil wells poison the air. Hospitals are overcrowded and drugs are in short supply. The river that runs through the city is the sick child of the country. Local leaders are not "in step" with science and modernity, relying instead on religious decrees.

Basra (AsiaNews) – Once known as the Venice of the Middle East for its canals and bodies of water, and famous as the country’s "reservoir", Basra today "is one of the most polluted cities in Iraq," said Mgr. Alnaufali Habib Jajou, Chaldean archbishop of Basra.

Instead of water, the city is now famous for its oil wells, pipelines and pumping stations, and is in the middle of a serious environmental crisis, something the prelate can attest to.

"This year, only half of the population has access to drinking water,” he explained. The city’s population, which stands at “Over three and a half million people, live in very hard conditions as a result of the fumes coming from the oil wells that burn gas.”

A doctor "said that the impact of pollution on residents is like smoking a pack of 20 cigarettes a day, non-smokers include". The net result is that "hospitals are overcrowded" at a time of "drug shortage". The situation is so dire that it "prompted the Health Minister to resign two weeks ago".

The once-navigable canals are now grimy rivulets delimited by piles of rubbish and pestilential smell. The Shaṭṭ al-ʿArab[*], formed by the confluence of the two great rivers that cross the country, the Tigris and the Euphrates flowing into the Persian Gulf, is considered the sick child of the country. Its waters, once drinkable, now contain more bacteria and pollutants than fish, scientists say.

Basra’s problems are not unique. They are but part of the Middle East’s many environmental disasters, often amid the indifference and fatalism of the leaders of Gulf States and peoples.

Last week, the representatives of these states played a minor role at the 74th United Nations General Assembly dedicated to the environment.

"Global warming and dams in Iran have drained our waterways,” said Environmental expert Chukri al-Hassan, originally from Iraq’s southern metropolis. The Shaṭṭ al-Arab is shared in part by both Iraq and Iran.

“Salt water from the Persian Gulf is infiltrating our river in never seen quantities, killing most of the surrounding crops and poisoning the inhabitants, often just by washing up.”

About 120,000 hospital admissions have been recorded due to environment-related problems. The salt level in the water is 20 times higher than normal "and within it, tens of viruses, parasites, and bacteria are present, [...] including cholera".

Water degradation is compounded by the loss of 90 per cent of farmland as noted in a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). This unhealthy environment has triggered a massive exodus of residents.

For Archbishop Jajou, there is more. "Every day we see new clinics open, which are actually businesses, not medical centres with people knowledgeable about the basics of health.” "For example, it is rare for people to be able to read the expiration date of any of the products sold in these shopping centres". And Islamic clerics "teach people to believe in fate" rather than science.

"We see the death of trees,” the prelate explained, “especially palm trees, because of water salinity. Thus, the rural population is moving to Basra. Fishing is in decline, partly because of chemical agents released by refineries and factories.” So, the city is famous today "for cancer, allergies, poisoning, dysentery and swelling on the skin due to tumours".

"I have the impression that some leaders are out of step with modernity, and continue to destroy the environment. For example, a few months ago a new rector was appointed to the university who, as soon as he took office, started uprooting vegetation from the gardens to prevent (male and female) students from sitting down together, because this is forbidden by Islam.”

"Very few people are conscious of the issue because they are faced with seemingly greater problems like street violence, traffic, drugs, unemployment and the housing crisis".

[*] Arvand Rud in Persian.

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