Failing Flows: The Politics of Water Management in Southern Iraq

Registration essential


Michael Mason is Director of the Middle East Centre and Associate Professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is interested in ecological politics and governance as applied to questions of accountability, security and sovereignty. His research addresses both global environmental politics and environmental change in Western Asia/the Middle East. He has a particular interest in environmental issues within conflict-affected areas and occupied territories, including Iraq, northern Cyprus, and the occupied Golan Heights. Alongside articles in a wide range of journals and chapter contributions, he is the author or editor of five books, of which the most recent is the forthcoming co-edited volume, The Untold Story of the Golan Heights (2022).


In July 2018 massive protests erupted in Basra city as residents demanded improvements in public services. Failings in water management were at the heart of local grievances: an outbreak of water-related illnesses was triggered by the increased use of polluted water from the Shatt al-Arab, Basra’s principal source of water. However, the deterioration of public water infrastructure has its roots in decades of armed conflict and international sanctions. Tap water has been undrinkable since the 1990s, forcing most households to rely on private water vendors. Water infrastructure upgrading was a priority for state-rebuilding after 2003 but receded under the sectarian civil war. Governmental and donor plans for mega-infrastructure water projects have stalled in the face of political stasis and systemic corruption. Compact water treatment units are the dominant purification technology, supplying 83% of treatment capacity across Basra governorate and 92% in Basra city. The effectiveness of this water treatment technology is reduced by irregular supplies of freshwater from the Bada’a Canal – flows negatively impacted by upstream dam construction, climatic variability and illegal water tapping. There is a pressing need to diversify water sources for Basra and improve the efficiencies of treatment technologies and distribution networks.