BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT
Al-Qurna district and the recently separated Al-Dair district comprise the rural northwest corner of Basra governorate in Southern Iraq. The Basra governorate itself, bordered by both Iran and Kuwait, is the second most populous in the country, with a predominantly Shia Arab and tribally configured society. It also has a wealth of natural resources including oil, marshlands, and the country’s only point of maritime access. Given this, the area is of significant strategic importance. However, its population and land faced repression, collective punishment, and neglect by the Saddam Hussein regime. This included severe environmental damage to rural areas when marshlands were drained as punishment for tribal rebellions against the regime.
The post-2003 period for Basra governorate as a whole, in the aftermath of the fall of the regime and in the midst of the Iraq War, was marked by significant violence, often resulting from intra-Shia fighting between different religious, tribal, and political factions for power and control.
As the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) conflict swept through northern and central Iraq in 2014, security configurations in and from Basra were deployed to the northern combat zones. Furthermore, many young men, including from rural areas of Basra governorate, joined various armed groups (eventually labelled Popular Mobilization Units, PMUs) to support this fight, responding to a fatwa issued by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to defend Iraq and its citizens from the dangers posed by ISIL. The movement of all of these forces out of the governorate was a contributing factor to the increasing violence and criminality by remaining militias and criminal gangs, including drug trafficking and smuggling networks from Iran. Rising crime and drug use, poor water and electricity provision, poverty, corruption, foreign intervention, and neglect, among others, culminated in Basra residents and activists protesting in 2015, again in the summer of 20189 and then subsequently joining wider anti-government demonstrations that began in October 2019. These protests were met with continuing violence by both state and non-state actors which has continued until now.
In the background of all of this, but growing in urgency in rural areas of the governorate in particular, are the intertwined impacts of climate change, gaps in regional water governance, and unbridled demand for water, all affecting the population. These issues have spurred slow-onset displacement and abandonment of agriculture as well as tribal conflicts over limited water resources.
Given the fluidity of the current situation in Basra governorate, particularly in Al-Qurna and Al-Dair, and the growing interplay between past, current, and emerging dynamics, it is critical to gain an understanding of how citizens in these rural areas perceive their current situation, and how governorate-level authorities view these dynamics ahead of designing and implementing programming in vulnerable and food insecure communities, to ensure such endeavours do not have any unintended negative consequences and contribute to more peaceful communities and social cohesion wherever possible and appropriate.
Therefore, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) worked with Social Inquiry to carry out a qualitative analysis of rural communities in Al-Qurna and Al-Dair to better understand current group relations, structural violence, and conflict causes, drivers, and triggers related to access to (natural) resources, (lack of) livelihoods, climate change, and food insecurity.