photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, October 12, 2012

Clean water, no cholera!

Cholera. That is not something one associates with modernity. Yet it has hit Kurdistan badly, and the authorities do not seem to have an answer to the problem.

It is the water from the lake of Dukan, the authorities say, that caused the first major outbreak of cholera in Sulaymaniya since 2007. Some 202 cases of the disease have been recorded in the city, and 1800 cases of vomiting and diarrhea that ended in  hospital. Four people are said to have died.

Every summer the threat of cholera hangs over Sulaymaniya. After the earlier outbreaks, restaurants were told by the authorities no longer to serve jugs of water with the meals, but only bottled water. The sales of water in plastic bottles went up enormously from that moment. It helped somewhat, but every year with the heat the cholera returns. This year is just exceptionally bad, and it seems to have taken the health authorities by surprise. The Health Ministry at the beginning just ignored it, probably hoping it would die down as it did before. And after twelve days of daily new cases, the parliament met to discuss the problems.

The outcomes of those deliberations were the order not to drink the water from the tap, and to keep away from vegetables. As we say in Holland: only after the calf has drowned, the well is closed over.

The authorities have been warned before, and again and again, of the danger of cholera - as it returns every year in the summer. The cause is complicated, and part of a bigger problem. The Kurdish cities are growing fast, and because of the speed of the growth and the lack of vision of those responsible, they do not have a good sewage system nor a good water treatment system. Drinking water comes from the lakes, which also serve as the exit of the sewage - so no wonder the cholera bacteria was found in Dukan lake. This is the question of the chicken and the egg, which was first?

Another cause of the problem are the wells that people - and the government - are using. I know that many of the deep wells in Sulaymaniya have been extremely low since the end of spring. Reason: the city uses far more water than it has, and far more than the winter rains allow it to. And the reason for that I have covered before: people are not careful with water. The Kurds are big users, with almost 800 liters per day per person. And up till now very little is being done to change this.

On top of that is the policy to 'greenify' the motorways in the cities. It is great to have plants and trees in the middle and at the sides of the main roads - but all the green needs water. And if plants are chosen that are not from the region, and only thrive with a lot of water, that also adds to the problems.

The low level of the wells means that the little water left in the bottom may well be polluted.And the wells that people dug themselves may well be polluted too by the sewage when it rains. Every evening the Kurdish capital Erbil stinks of sewage - because there is no good sewage system. In many areas there is even none, with houses just using underground tanks for their waste water, that overflow - thus causing the stench, and posing a threat to national health.

In Sulaymaniya, every year when the rains start, the water from the taps show a muddy color. It looks like the rain is getting into the water system, which of course makes the water no longer fit for drinking.

Every summer, in the lake of Darbandikhan fish die mysteriously. The media are keen to report about poisons that are used, sabotage or otherwise. But what really happens is that the lake is so full of the shit  - excusez le mot - of Sulaymaniya that the water has too little oxygen for the fish to survive.
Photo Kurdish Globe

Then: the vegetables. Yes, I hear from farmers that because of the lack of clean water, a mixture with waste water is used to water the crops. But when you clean vegetables well with clean water and dry them before cutting and eating, or cook them in boiling water, I do not see why the bacteria would still be a threat.

The cause of cholera is a bigger one than drinking water and vegetables. It is a government that is allowing cities to grow without taking into consideration that water management is needed. It cannot be that in a country as rich on oil and with a booming economy as Kurdistan that wants to be the shining example of the region, there is no vision or money or planning to make sure its citizens have clean water.

The right to clean water is a human right. It is a necessity, as the cholera outbreak has shown. And it definitely is not a luxury. It needs politicians that get their priorities right. If the water problem is not tackled soon, Kurdistan will become unlivable. It has no seawater that it can desalinate. It is depending on the rain and snow of the winter for the flow if its rivers and the level of its deep wells. It needs to manage water, to clean waste water, to reuse water. It needs action. And soon!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Kings on double jobs

,,You work as an English teacher?'' The taxi driver nodded while he handed me the change of my 5000 dinars. ,,At the university'', he said. ,,Why would someone with your background want to drive a taxi?'' The middle aged driver smiled a bitter little smile. ,,I cannot live from the salary they pay me.Seven hundred dollars just is not enough.''

This is the story of Kurdistan. Here very many people have double jobs. Before the teacher I met a driver who did his taxi rides after his work as an engineer at the electricity department of the local government. Again, that did not pay him enough to feed his family, so he told me. I know of policemen and security men who for the same reason drive a taxi after work.

That must generate a good income, because Kurdistan does not have any public transport. If you want to go van A to B, you step into a taxi. There are taxi's you hail in the streets, there are shared taxi's between the towns. Driving a taxi is thus a very common job, also because there are hardly any requirements. Just a license for the taxi, no exams or other tests are needed.

But it not only taxi's. I have had staff that worked with the government in the morning, and came to work for me afterwards. I even had a candidate for a job who thought he could do it easily next to his full-time job with a company. Kurds seem to think it is normal to have two jobs.

The government is the biggest employer in the country. Over 75 percent of all the jobs are with the Kurdistan government. Government jobs are popular. Because you do not have to work hard - often people are just waiting behind a desk for the day to end - and that day is over at 2 PM. But the main reason is that the government is the only one providing employees with a pension. Government employees can apply for a long leave - because there is not enough work for all - and still get the pension. For that reason people are eager to get a government job.

But that job often does not pay enough for a family to live off. With rising prices - especially housing is expensive, but in general the prices have been rising over the past months - people need another income. Not a completely different job - as that would cost them the pension. Just extra income.

A friend of mine wrote an article in a local, English language paper, the Kurdish Globe, where he wrote that 'it rains money in Kurdistan'. He found that these double jobs ended people with incomes of 2500-3500 dollars a month - in a country where income tax does not exist. He even found a school teacher who also ran a mini-market and made a salary of 4000 dollars a month. The main quote in his article is that people say 'they live as kings'.

Yet while people have double incomes, they occupy a government job that is needed for the younger generation. One of the reasons behind the unrest of last year was the lack of jobs for the young. After that the government added thousands of jobs - leading to the offices full of civil servants who talk and gossip together with an eye on the clock, or to civil servants who add another unneeded check to an already too long procedure.


Kurdistan is booming. Restaurants are full, car parks are filled with new cars, many Kurdish living rooms are  changed yearly, the bazaar and the malls are buzzing. Yet many young people do not find work, many farmers and villagers cannot keep up with the financial boom.

Why keep government jobs that are not functional? Why not just make a national pension and use some of the money saved from the scrapping of jobs to create a stronger private sector? Why not give teachers, engineers and others that the government needs to keep a more realistic income and realistic working hours? And make sure farmers and villagers get paid well for an agricultural production, in stead of importing all the fruit and vegetables from outside?

The main reasons I can see is that governing parties need the jobs to keep their voters satisfied and tied to them, and that Iraq has a history as a socialist country. But that is an unpopular past - it is the story of the Baath regime. Another reason is the income from the oil - it does not force governments to make difficult decisions, even if a healthy fabric of the country needs them.

These are no easy decisions. But even before that, politicians need the courage to start the discussion. Because the boom of today is bound to end some day - perhaps even soon. Then all those thousands of extra civil servants will be sent home - without the backup of a healthy private sector and a thriving agriculture.