When Marie-Helene Bricknell, the World Bank’s Special Representative in Baghdad and I arrived on the outskirts of Basra, the largest city in Southern Iraq, my immediate impression was that I had landed in Mordor from Tolkien's Lord Of the Rings Trilogy. The landscape was bleak with sand and dust, and the horizon was filled with black smoke and bright yellow flames from burning oil wells. On our first night, I went for a run in the compound (a former military base) and struggled to breathe in the dirty air. I wondered how ordinary Iraqis managed under these bleak conditions.
This large area – the oil sands of Basra – produced much of Iraq’s wealth. However, it took an enormous toll on the quality of its land and air – and ultimately on people's lives. It's relatively safe down there; the fighting has been mostly in Baghdad and towards the north. We traveled in armored vehicles with a security convoy, but it is much more relaxed than what I was used to.
The next day, we travelled to Basra, a bustling city of 3 million people. It is ready to put the past behind it and capitalize on the opportunities oil can provide for its future. However, in our meetings with government officials and representatives of civil society, we heard a different story: oil does not produce jobs for ordinary people, that Iraq is having a hard time mobilizing the oil money for restoring public services - particularly electricity and water, and that the poor environment is causing a health crisis, including alarmingly high rates of cancer in children. And yet, people seemed to be filled with an infectious enthusiasm for the future. The war is finally over, democracy - however imperfect - is in place, and the process of reconstruction has begun.
Looking around me, I saw trash-filled streets and reeking canals filled with sewage. But I also saw people going about their daily lives, yellow taxis clogging the busy streets, roads and constructions projects, and thriving shops and markets. This is not the war-torn Iraq I had imagined when I planned this visit. In many ways the challenges are more complex than I had thought, raising many questions in my mind. How can the World Bank help Iraq build capacity to harness its own resources? How can we help ordinary Iraqis harness economic opportunities? How can we advocate for the environment, when the main priority is getting the economy going? These are tough questions with no easy answers, but I for one, was grateful to get the chance to witness firsthand the extraordinary challenges and opportunities Iraqis are facing in the aftermath of wars and sanctions.
Next stop: Al-Muthanna. The poorest and most sparsely populated province in Iraq.