The orange glow of the giant natural gas flares in the oil fields around Basra represents this bustling city’s wealth of natural resources. But for the impoverished people who live near them, the flames only serve as a reminder of their inability to share in the riches that lie beneath their feet.
Poverty is rampant in Basra, Iraq, despite its oil fields. Few area residents can find jobs at the nearby refinery. Up to 80 percent of Iraq’s oil comes from the Basra area.
The area around Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and main port, accounts for as much as 80 percent of the country’s oil production. It has emerged as Iraq’s best hope for stability and prosperity as it prepares to sell off its top undeveloped oil fields to foreign companies at an auction next month. Of the five largest fields that will be bid on, four are in or around Basra.
Despite the riches trapped below its oil fields, though, this city of three million is among Iraq’s poorest places.
People in neighborhoods within a few miles of fields with so much oil that it floats atop the surface in huge black pools live amid mud and feces. Carts pulled by overworked donkeys compete with cars for space on streets. Childhood cancer rates are the highest in the country. The city’s salty tap water makes people ill. And there is more garbage on the streets than municipal collectors can make a dent in.
The hundreds of thousands who live in the villages around the fields all dream of finding oil work, but that is unlikely. Those who apply are almost always told they lack the education or experience for oil work. But they believe that their only real deficiency is a lack of connections and money for bribes.
“People sit here in the evenings and they watch the flames and wonder how rich they would be if they had only one hour of those oil exports,” said Naeem al-Moussuawi, who lives in one of the poorer villages in the Basra area.
Last month, after Iraq’s Oil Ministry announced that it planned to hire workers for its Basra-based South Oil Company, thousands of people waited in line for applications — some for days. Among them were men in tattered clothing with bare, muddy feet. When the line got unruly, the police were called. Some applicants were beaten. More than 27,000 applications were filled out for 1,600 jobs — most of which require a college education or experience, and most Basrans have neither.
In the village of Asdika, oil pipelines run along the perimeter, and several thousand people live in ramshackle houses of gray cinder blocks and plastic sheeting for roofs.
There is no garbage collection, and household trash is thrown outside to rot in the sun. There is no sewer system, so wastewater from houses is dumped outside, attracting thousands of flies to the lakes of raw sewage that have formed outside most homes. Almost everyone is unemployed.
The village is on government property — an oil field — and its existence is illegal. Residents say the police show up occasionally and threaten to bulldoze the houses.
Hussein Flaeh, 29, an unemployed father of two, has lived in Asdika since 2003. Fifteen members of his family live in a concrete-block house with three small rooms. One recent morning, Mr. Flaeh’s youngest child, Essam, born two weeks ago, was placed outside to get some fresh air. The baby’s face was almost immediately covered by hungry flies.
Asked whether he had ever applied for a job at the oil refinery, Mr. Flaeh appeared perplexed and did not answer. Pressed, his gentle face turned hard.
“You can’t even reach it,” he said. “Don’t even talk about it.”
Government officials in Basra have called for a fee of $1 on each barrel of oil produced in the province, which would then be used for local projects instead of going to the central government. But even if Basra suddenly became awash in oil money, the construction of new housing, offices and even farmland would be prohibited because almost everything is situated atop untapped reserves of crude oil.
“Ninety percent of Basra is an oil field,” said Ahmed al-Sulati, a member of the local provincial council. “We can’t build anything here. We need to have more housing in some neighborhoods, but we can’t because we are surrounded by oil.”
In the meantime, Mr. Sulati said, “We are getting sick from breathing gas, and the streets are getting destroyed by the oil trucks.”
During a recent speech, Ali Ghalib Baban, Iraq’s minister of planning, said Basra was on the cusp of being “one of the world’s most important economic centers.”
But in the village of Shuiba, so close to the city’s refinery and major fields that the air is heavy with the smell of petroleum, farmers have stopped growing tomatoes and now rent their fields to truck drivers who park their tankers there for about 80 cents a night.
It is the village’s single school, however, that is the source of most of Shuiba’s concerns. Some classes have more than 55 students packed inside, and boys and girls must be taught together, which has led some parents to keep their daughters at home. There are no bathrooms, and some classrooms have no electricity. The school grounds are littered with piles of garbage.
Oil workers live on the opposite side of the village.
In the poorer half of Shuiba, the workers are regarded with envy and loathing. Not a single resident from the poor side has been hired for an oil job.
“Everyone would like to work for the oil company,” Mr. Moussuawi said. “We know we are poor and many of us are not well educated. The problem is they see the trucks full of oil and they wonder where the money is going.”
But even in Shuiba’s better-off half, adjacent to Basra’s sprawling refinery, residents say they have unmet needs. The housing is neat, there is no trash and the streets are paved, but there is crowding and rising unemployment even among the college-educated sons and daughters of oil company managers, they say.
“You need to know somebody or pay a bribe to work there,” said Najim Khadim, 26, the son of Shuiba’s unofficial mayor, Mohammed Khadim, who has worked for 38 years at the refinery, where he is a supervisor.
The son, who has a college degree in chemistry, said not even his father had been able to help with a job. The going rate for bribes for a job, he said, is $2,000 to $5,000, which he said he refused to pay.
A visitor is brought a glass of tap water. It tastes as salty as the water in the rest of town.
Duraid Adnan and Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reporting.
Source New York Times