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.
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.
Siham 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," Siham 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."
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 Siham’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," Siham 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.