The youth enjoy swimming and fishing in Basra's main river. Entire groups spend their time by the river, having fun in the middle of waste and rusty shipwrecks.

Khalid says, "We all know someone who is sick because of the water, but what can we do? There is no clean water in the city, we have no options."

Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC
Read caption Youth in Basra swims in the river among waste and rusty shipwrecks. "We all know someone who's sick because of the water, but what can we do? There's no clean water in the city, we have no options," says Khalid. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

A clean drop in the ocean: Working in Iraq’s worst health crisis

Helin Moayed Baker|Published 19. Feb 2019
Last summer, the Iraqi southern governorate of Basra witnessed waves of protests when its citizens appealed for better access to services. The water’s contamination levels rocketed and clean water became inaccessible to many of the governorate’s households.

The worst health crisis in decades

The situation spiralled into what many considered to be Iraq’s worst health crisis in decades. More than 100,000 people were hospitalised for water-borne diseases.

The water shortages in rural areas in Basra and other southern governorates of Iraq have forced thousands of people to leave their homes. Only in August last year, about 3,780 people were displaced. In addition, the lack of access to clean water caused tension and violence in the community.

Read also: Iraq: Basra's children face disease outbreaks in rundown schools

Read caption Basel washes his hands in Faihaa school in Basra old city, Iraq. Last summer, the water ran for only two hours a day and was not suitable for consumption. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC


High risk of contracting water-borne diseases

Local education officials, parents, and teachers all cited the conditions of water and sanitation facilities in schools as a top concern when the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) assessed the situation in Basra. More than 277,000 children risked contracting water-borne diseases. Attending schools with rundown facilities, simply turning on the tap to wash your hands or have clean water to drink became a rarity.

Broken toilets and dry pipes coupled with overcrowded classrooms made schools breeding grounds for outbreaks, leading to higher rates of school dropout.

"My friends got sick from water"

Teachers and students told us they saw numerous cases of children hospitalised, suffering from diarrhoea, vomiting, rashes and scabies.

Seham Aziz, 14, from Basra is in her sixth grade of primary school. She described her school as unsanitary: "It’s very difficult to learn in my school. Many of my friends don’t come to school because they got sick from the water. My brother got sick because he drank salty water and had to go to the hospital."

There are about 80 students in her class and never enough seats for everyone to have their own desk.  During the exams, every four students had to share one desk. Sometimes students sit on the floor beside the door or trash bin. "We had only one toilet for the whole school, and most of the time it wasn’t working," Seham told us.

"Last year, during the very hot summer and with the salty water we couldn’t even take showers. We did not finish the curriculum, everyone was sick."

Faihaa school, as more than 800 in Basra, has deteriorated toilets and water infrastructure. Only  4 latrines still barely work for more than 670 students. 

The broken WASH infrastructure combined with the general water scarcity and pollution in the city results in sporadic water flowing from the taps. It is common to see boys and girls waiting their turn in line to go to the toilets, sometimes for half an hour.  Others prefer to wait until they go home, impacting their ability to concentrate and making them feel fatigued.

Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC
Read caption Teachers and students in Basra's schools told us they saw numerous cases of children hospitalised, suffering from diarrhoea, vomiting, rashes and scabies. Boys and girls would wait their turn in line to go to the toilets, sometimes for half an hour. Others preferred to wait until they went home. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC


Schools from the 1970s

Hani Ibrahim, a headmaster in Basra, describes the situation in his primary school: "The school was built in the 70’s and hasn’t been renovated since. It was supposed to be rebuilt in 2014, but it never happened."

Many Basra schools have two to three shifts per day. Thousands of children share the same building and the same unhealthy conditions. Most of the families can’t afford bottled water, it has become too expensive because of the crisis.

"The school had broken toilets, no clean water, doors, nor lights. We desperately needed toilets and water taps for the children," says Hani. "On some days I thought about closing the school, there were too many cases of diarrhoea."

How we responded

While the water crisis in Basra drew the world’s attention last summer, very little action was taken. NRC saw an imperative to respond to southern Iraq’s emerging humanitarian crisis before things got worse. 

We deployed our experts to Seham’s school in addition to 11 others to install water tanks and rehabilitate taps and toilets. With the support of Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NMFA), we ensured that more than 21,000 students had a safe and sanitary learning environment for years to come.

"Before, we could not go to toilets, and if we had to we would wash our hands with dirty water. Now the toilets are clean, we are not worried anymore," Seham explains.

What we did is a start, but it’s still a drop in the ocean. More than 500 schools in Basra lack appropriate water and sanitation facilities. This is a concrete example of what could and should be done to protect Iraqi children from water-borne diseases ahead of the upcoming summer.

 

NRC WASH specialists are working in Basra to provide schools with the financial and technical resources to rehabilitate their water tanks and toilets in order to prevent the spread of cholera and water-borne diseases as children return to school.

Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC
Read caption The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) deployed our experts to 12 schools in Basra to install water tanks and rehabilitate taps and toilets. With the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NMFA), we ensured that more than 21,000 students had a safe and sanitary learning environment for years to come.