How USAID’s support in Iraq helped end a water crisis and restore hope


Al-Huta is a village in southern Iraq near the Port of Basrah. It is home to Ali Sattar, a 28-year-old man working in finance and administration at one of Iraq’s largest oil fields west of Basrah.

Ali lives here with his wife and their three children, along with his parents and three brothers. The palm tree-lined streets that lead to their home are on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river. 


Three men, one holding a baby, stand outside a water desalination plant.
 A man uses a water hose to water a bush outside.

With easy access to freshwater from the river, residents of Ali’s village relied on farming as their main source of income for generations.

The broader Basrah region also relies heavily on the Shatt al-Arab river and its freshwater canals for water.

Paradoxically, while water is the source of many livelihoods here, for decades, drinking it was life-threatening. Poor management of water distribution, increasing pollution levels, sewage dumping, and outdated water infrastructure all contributed to the steady deterioration of waterways.

The water we used to get was harmful to our health, Ali said. He recalled how escalating water scarcity turned to a health emergency in the city. Many of my relatives and neighbors fell sick, forcing some of them to seek emergency medical attention.

The 2018 water crisis was the culmination of decades of overuse, pollution, and reduced rainfall from climate change. Basrah’s water source became severely contaminated, and 118,000 residents went to the hospital due to water poisoning. 

The situation was aggravated by unsustainable water use for irrigation and by industries. This lowered water levels, allowing seawater to seep into freshwater sources, making it unsuitable for people to drink or grow crops. 

Teapot filled with water from a sink.

Walking along the paved road leading to his neighborhood, Ali admires the palm trees and points to vast farmlands, including fields of date palms belonging to his friend and neighbor, Nazim Yousif, 65.

We suffered from the contaminated water, Nazim said. We were unable to grow our crops, and the soil quality was affected.

Nazim Yousif
Road in Shatt Al Arab hamlet, Basra, Iraq

Facing not only a water crisis but an impending food emergency, Ali and Nazim sprang into action with other neighbors. They pooled funds to purchase weekly deliveries of tankers of clean water to ration equally among households.

A single tanker serving around 10 homes costs up to $400 a week, the equivalent of one farmer’s monthly salary. Though it was expensive, it was the only way Ali and Nazim knew to keep their families and their community safe and healthy. 

We are a close-knit community that has stuck by each other through thick and thin, Ali said. 

A man uses a water hose to water a bush outside.

While Ali and Nazim were ready to do anything for their community, they also knew that they needed to find a sustainable solution.

In response to Basrah’s water crisis, USAID teamed up with the United Nations Development Programme in early 2019 to rehabilitate nine of Basrah’s major water treatment plants located in the districts of Shatt Al-Arab, Ezaldeen Saleem, Al Medina, Deer Al Saleem, and Abi Al-Khaseeb. 

Water desalination plant in Shatt Al Arab hamlet

Today, the USAID-funded treatment plants have been rebuilt to meet local and international standards. The system filters and adds chlorine to water drawn from the Shatt Al-Arab River before dispatching it to communities through a central piping system. 

The renovated treatment plants are bringing safe, clean water to more than 625,000 residents of Basrah. 

For Ali, a monthly supply of potable water now costs around $30, which is about 25 percent less than the cost his family paid to receive clean water delivered via tanker.

Now, life is different for us, Ali said. We can get as much water as we want, whenever we want, without worrying if our family members will fall sick. However, we need to be careful with how we consume water.

 A short pier with a small utility building at the end over a body of water.
A sign in Arabic that includes the Iraqi national flag and the USAID logo posted outside a water desalination plant.
Pipes outside a water desalination plant.
Pipes inside a water desalination plant.

Renewed access to clean water has also revived Nazim’s farm.

I am slowly building back my business, he said. I cannot believe that my life has turned back around in such a short period.

For residents of Basrah like Ali and Nazim, the USAID water treatment rehabilitation project has reinvigorated a community that was spiraling into despair. Water has become a symbol of resilience, hope, and solidarity for their community. 

A man standing outside a water desalination plant.


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USAID is rehabilitating critical water infrastructure to ensure that there is safe potable water for the residents of Basrah. The rehabilitation is implemented through the Iraq Crisis Response and Resilience Programme (ICRRP), and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The provision of basic services, such as safe potable water, is imperative to reduce vulnerability and address the needs of Basrah's citizens, helping to rebuild ties between the population and the Government of Iraq. These rehabilitated water treatment plants are improving access to potable water for more than 625,000 Iraqi men, women, and children.

Photos by UNDP Iraq