Erbil Civil Defence

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How Flooding Revealed what is Wrong with Iraqi Kurdistan

On December 17, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan became the epicenter of media attention when it was hit by flooding that claimed 14 lives and left hundreds homeless. The devastating flooding revealed what is fundamentally wrong with the region. The deadly floods were mainly caused by man-made mistakes rather than nature.

The disastrous floods were caused by mismanagement and corruption in the city’s planning. The flooding also shows how Kurdish authorities are continuously failing to meet the demands of its constituents. Another crisis grabbed international attention. It pitted Belarus against the European Union as thousands of Iraqi Kurds swarmed the Polish-Belarusian border due to a lack of jobs and opportunities back home in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Erbil is the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is the most developed city in Iraqi Kurdistan, yet the development is unequal. The city is divided into two parts: rich and poor. It is known for its luxuries residential neighborhoods, and it is home to many skyscrapers that distinguish it from the rest of Iraq. It has become a safe refugee for many Iraqis escaping dangerous and unstable cities further south, while the native people of Erbil suffer in their own city.

Erbil has a dry temperature, and it borders the region’s largest desert, the Arabian Desert. The yearly precipitation rate is less than 500 millimeters. The region has also been facing a drought for two consecutive years. Yet the city was flooded twice in 2021. Although climate change has a role to play, the failure on the part of the authorities to avoid such calamities is unequivocal.

Locals cleaning up in Erbil following deadly flooding. (Erbil Civil Defence)

A 10-month-old infant died in the flooding. “He was in his father’s arms when the water took him,” the baby’s mother stated. So far, the baby’s body has not been recovered. The flooding destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property including hundreds of vehicles. The flooding primarily impacted neighborhoods that are inhabited by lower-income residents. Well-off neighborhoods were largely unaffected.

Flooding is rare in Erbil’s history which helps to explain the most recent floods. Around 15 millimeters of rain fell with such low intensity that normally wouldn’t cause flooding. Excess water and rain flooded Erbil because the city has no infrastructure to discharge the excess water.

Iraqi Kurdistan is an oil-rich region with a relatively small population of 6 million people. The Erbil municipality has not appropriated a budget for water drainage infrastructure. Mismanagement and corruption by the city’s authorities led to the flooding. Natural drainage canals were filled in or turned into buildings without building any canals in their stead. Lands appropriated to water drainage systems and water canals were illegally granted to businesses and people usually connected to the political establishment. A practice that is widespread in the city.

Ali Hama Salih, a KRI lawmaker, who is also the lead investigator of corruption showed a natural water canal that had been destroyed by a KDP leader who is building a market and a gas station in its place. He attributed the flooding to various similar projects that have been built on water canals. Salih highlighted a residential complex named Zaytun City. It is built on water canals and has blocked drainage canals. The project is owned by a man connected to senior KDP leadership.

An elderly man who lost his son in the flooding reprimanded the government for his son’s death. “My son lost his life because the authorities destroyed my animal farm and expropriated my land while many who are connected received land and I had to come to this place which lies near a natural water canal,” he stated. Wealth is distributed unequally and usually to those affiliated with powerful political elites.

The neighborhoods to the north are home to millionaires and powerful politicians. Most rich Iraqis and politicians own residences and businesses in that part of the city. The rich neighborhoods were unaffected by the flooding because the government has built drainage canals in that part of the city. If anything, the flooding highlights the emerging class divide in Iraqi Kurdistan.

For the past 7 years, the government has not been able to pay its employees on time. The government employs almost 1.2 million people. Because of the large number of people employed by the government, they have become the backbone of the local economy. However, with salaries delayed or unpaid in some cases, the middle class has almost disappeared, and a class divide has emerged.

Such disasters have made Kurds prefer foreign occupation over autonomy and independence. On the anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s death, some Kurds didn’t hide their desire for the former dictator to come back on social media. Some made his image their profile picture. The region attempted independence in 2017 which resulted in a setback for the region. The KRI lost 51% of the territory it once controlled and more than 80% of its oil fields.

As the flooding and mass migration show, corruption and mismanagement shall be dealt with as security issues rather than the friction of the engine of governance. The Kurds are one of the most persecuted peoples in history. The deadly flooding and mass migration clearly show how corruption and mismanagement are affecting the region. As the region is surrounded by many regional conflicts such as the re-emergence of ISIS and the Turkish-PKK conflict, the region’s future lies in unity and political and economic development.