A view from Al-Muthanna: Iraq’s poorest province
Barbry Keller, Sr. Country Officer for Iraq, and I travelled to Al-Muthanna in May after a very interesting trip to Basrah. We left at dawn and travelled on a superb dual carriageway to Iraq’s poorest region. Along the way, we witnessed first-hand the disastrous impact on the environment of Saddam’s retaliatory policies on the marshlands. Drained marshes were evident on either side of the road. What was once fertile land is now a desert gray filled with countless plastic bags, burnt out wrecks of cars, tanks and some other undetermined debris with trickles of water evident here and there but nothing like the lush plains it must have once been.
It was a landscape where Mad Max would feel very much at home. Vestiges of the occupation were also evident with road signs still pointing to former US bases and sporting names reminiscent of the homeland that the soldiers who called this desert place home put up in nostalgia. Signs reading “Clearwater ”were visible still replete with US-made tents, hesco walls to protect against blasts. They are now occupied by the Iraqi Army. We arrived in Al Muthanna after a 3 hour drive and entered a bustling city choked full of cars and trucks bellowing black smoke and countless pedestrians.
Despite the heat, women were covered in their traditional black abayas with their hands and feet covered with black gloves and socks. They rushed hurriedly along the streets their eyes cast down. Al Muthannah is the largest expanse of Iraq’s territory (20,000 sq mi) but with a low population density (about 700,000 inhabitants) dispersed across the vast expanse of mostly desert. It houses one of the most notorious prisons in Iraq and one where Saddam sent many of his opponents. Many of Al Muthanna’s inhabitants are Bedouin nomads and the provincial council mourns the difficulties of establishing population numbers to justify building schools and health clinics though they admit that there is a critical shortage of both. The people prefer their nomadic way of life and tend not to stay put in any one place long enough to feed the numbers necessary to build schools in some areas. Yet, these are the poorest and the most needy. Water is scarce in Al Muthanna, so are jobs. The province is one among a handful of Iraqi provinces that are facing a perplexing social problem. Women are leaving their husbands in droves and take up housekeeping with several children in tow but without much ability to earn a living given that educational attainment for girls counts among the lowest for Iraq.
Some men comment that the women may not have much choice in some instances as their decision may be driven by the husband’s desire for another wife. Across the region the high degree of poverty, lack of school infrastructure, water shortages, poor health indicators and street urchins wandering about all seemed to me the sort of urgent needs we might help the province tackle. The Governor received us with great warmth and indeed hopes for Bank assistance in those critical areas.