Working in Sadr City

I owe my understanding to the role of environmental policies to my students at the Baghdad University School of Law. Most of my students were from Sadr City. Usually, they looked pale, their clothes were old, and they had a frustrated look in their eyes. They formed their own groups, and they had their own group identity.

Some of them approached asking permission not to attend the class, because they had to work. I was curious to know more about their lives, so I started asking questions about it. I must say it took time to build trust with them, but I was patient. I wanted to learn about them, I wanted to understand how they felt, and what their daily life looked like.

I began to understand that they were mistreated and highly discriminated against because of their background as poor peasants. Their story goes back to the mid 40s when the poor peasants, who served their landlords for their food, migrated from Southern Iraq, particularly from Maysan province.
 They migrated because of structural scarcity of croplands. The tenure system did not encourage small ownership, thus peasants had no hope of a better future. They worked during the agricultural season for their food that should last them until next season. The entire clan (more than 100 persons) cultivated rice for the landlord, who in return, pays them in rice. The chief of the clan gets 100lbs distributed among the clan as he desires. 
The poor peasants migrated and inhabited the environmental marginalized areas near the Tigris River. These areas were most affected by flooding from the Tigris River. They hoped of finding a better life and better jobs, jobs that could pay. They worked in jobs no-one else and they lived in ghettos. A family of five members could make up to three dollars per day. 
These jobs were unsecured. The father works in constructions, and he would earn US$1per day; the mother would work in housing keeping and the kids—age five and above, would work in the nearest market. However, these jobs are not secured. The family may have days, maybe months without income. The peasants lived in ghettos or slums. 
They built their “houses’’ from mud and reed. Even now, their “houses” lack access to basic services such as safe drinking water, sanitation, trash pick- up, and electricity. Iraq is a desert climate, the summer lasts for six months, and it is 70C hot. Most of the neighborhoods in Sadr City are not even hooked up to receive services. Sadr City is the “home” of three million people; half of Baghdad population.

In a group exercise that I practice with my students at George Mason, I “lock the students up” in the classroom without water, food, or access to the restrooms. Then, I turn off the air conditioning and I ask them “How long can you last in the class without water?” Their answer is “an hour or two” and afterwards; they would attack me to get out of class. 

Then, I immediately ask them “how about the people who have been living in this situation for 50 years?” Don’t you think they would act violently to get out of the situation they were locked in? One of my students at George Mason asked me “Don’t they adapt?” I answer the question with another question “Can you adapt to scarcity, can you drink less water, can you go to the restrooms once instead of twice, can you live among rats and insects, can you bear the encroaching heat of the summer without the air conditioner?”

Sadr City people are trying to “get out of the classroom” for 50 years now. In their mind to get out they have to attack the government which they hold responsible for their grievance. They cannot relate to a government, even if it is an elected government as long as this government is failing to meet their basic needs. The government is thinking of them as rebels and trouble makers. However, they are just frustrated over their basic needs such as water, and they act violently over their grievances.

Here in the U.S, all we have to do to get water is open the tap. However, in Sadr City to drink water the people have to walk back and forth eight miles every day. I will never forget one of my students who I was trying to help him get a job. After reaching out to some colleagues and friends, one of them offered to interview him at 9:30AM. 

I was excited so was my student. However, to be able to go to the interview, he needed to shave. Thus, he needed to walk eight miles to the river and get back. He also needed to find some fuel to heat the water. Since, his appointment was at 9:30AM, he needed to start walking at 5:00 AM. He did not go to the interview. He simply did not go! He said to me later  even if he had the energy to walk, he did not have money to buy fuel.

Additionally, He said he did feel he would get the job, because he lived in Sadr City. He was referring to the discrimination which most Sadr City people usually face. Because of their background as poor peasants,  the slums they live in and the jobs they work, many of the Baghdad populace look at them as low- class peasants, thugs, and trouble makers. They discriminate against them.

In return, Sadr City people present themselves as the hard workers or the working-class who struggling to survive. Sadr City is the home of the infamous black-market of Iraq Mrredy Market, where documents are being forged. Organized crime is another way of making a living for people who have unsecured jobs.

The connection between lacking basic environmental needs and the violent behavior of Sadr City people was never examined from an environmental management point of view. It was categorized as an ethnic-political conflict. Under Saddam’s regime, it was viewed as Shiite majority who were standing against the Sunni ruling elite. Under Kassim’s regime it was viewed as a class - conflict, where the working class stood against the aristocrats. Under the monarchy it was viewed as the low-class peasants standing against the landlords. However, it was never examined from an environmental management point of view, where a group of people (regardless of their background) is lacking access to basic environmental needs, and they are acting violently on their grievances.

I went to Sadr City many times. I will never forget the woman I talked to in Sadr City. She was an old woman, without any formal education, but she had a lot of wisdom. She said “what did the government do for us? I mean all administrations. They send their soldiers and police forces to shoot us. Wouldn’t we be better- off if they sent someone to pick up the trash?”
On July 23rd of 2004, I started working in Sadr City providing water and education, involving people in the process of decision-making, and building their capacity as alternatives to violence. Their cooperation was amazing.

I do not want to give the impression that I had a magic wham that I waved and everything turned rosy. It took a lot of hard work to build trust between the Ministry and Sadr City people. Sadr City is a close community; no-one can gain entrance to the city, unless he is from the city. Reaching out to Sadr City through employees from Sadr City, inciting a dialogue with the City Council members, tribal leaders and community leaders within the City, and involving the community in every step of the process were the basic steps to build trust. 

I also owe a lot to the Iraqi professors, the unknown soldiers, who supported the Ministry’s effort and put their trust and belief in its work. They understand that they cannot present themselves as environmentalists while half of Baghdad population is dying out of thirst.
What we, I and the Ministry’s team, did was simple, however effective. We provided a basic environmental need: water and trash pick- up! We initiated a campaign to distribute safe drinking water and organized people to pick-up trash. 
The campaign included capacity building programs and environmental education programs. Community leaders and the City Council members received training on environmental management and meeting environmental basic needs. The Ministry has to be responsive. All the experts starting from the Ministry and her Deputy were going back and forth to Sadr City. These programs were replicated in the Fallujah City of a Sunni majority. As both Shiite and Sunni community leaders told me “we want the same thing- safe drinking water.” More Iraqi cities were covered; Najaf, Nassyria, and Basra.

Thus, security can be achieved through soft power by providing basic needs resulted in reducing the level of violence. In 2004 ( when these projects were running) less people were killed. Based on the Iraqi Body Count, the number of civilian deaths dropped from 12,049 in 2003 to 10,751 in 2004. 

The number of civilian deaths continued to increase after these were ceased. In 2008 after the surge, the number of civilian deaths decreased dramatically to 9,214. However, this number is very close to the 2004 number, and it came at a higher cost. These projects cost US$20, 000, while the White House estimated that the surge cost US$5. 6 billion.

Can it be that simple? Yes, it can. Do you believe that Shiite and Sunni want the same thing and willing to work together to achieve it? Yes, they do and that’s another story.


Laura J. Nigro said…
Dear Mishkat,

Thank you for sharing these vivid, gripping stories of how you have gained stark insights into the nature of human (in)security. These basic survival needs---food, fuel, clean water, safe comfortable shelter---are timeless; until they are met, they will always out-muscle efforts to negotiate and achieve "higher" aims.

Also, "brava!" for examining all of this from an environmental management point of view, and showcasing the enormous potential of "soft power."

Finally, this is to express appreciation for recounting in person "Just Add Water!" at Initiatives of Change's national Trust Factor Forum last spring in Richmond, VA. (
Mishkat said…
Dear Laura,
Thank you for your kind comment. I am glad you enjoyed reading my stories. Please feel free to share them.
I enjoyed participating in the Trust Factor Forum and I look forward to the next one.

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