BAGHDAD—After a night of intense rain storms, the joke being shared on social media Thursday assures Iraqis that they don’t need to go far to catch a migrant boat to Europe.
“Grab a boat from Baghdad and it will take you straight to Greece,” the joke reads, as millions of Iraqis awoke to knee-deep floodwaters that seeped into homes and paralyzed parts of the city.
Blocks of ice, typically for sale, floated down the streets of Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood as men trudged through the muddy water trying to assess damage.
The rare rain storms began late Wednesday and continued into Thursday, dumping heavy rain on the Iraqi capital and across the country. The Iraqi government declared Thursday a holiday to ease the burden on people who may otherwise struggle to get to work and school.
Police and security forces were deployed in Baghdad to help citizens navigate the floodwaters. Security forces have been stretched thin battling the Islamic State militant group since last year, so the battle with Mother Nature comes as an added challenge.
“We are your brothers, and we are here to serve the citizens of Iraq,” one police offer in central Baghdad said, speaking live on Iraqiyya state television.
Old and inadequate drainage systems have long been an issue in Iraq and among the complaints of citizens who have been protesting for better basic services and an end to corruption. Calls for reform have intensified since the summer, when scorching temperatures led to chronic power cuts.
Iraq’s power, communications, water, sewage treatment and health facilities were severely battered during the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War, and then again in the 2003 invasion. In between, stringent U.N. sanctions severely limited the country’s ability to rebuild.
Despite some investments to rebuild infrastructure since the 2003 invasion, many Iraqis blame corruption at home for the lack of progress.
“There is neither infrastructure nor reforms,” said Muyad Ali, a Sadr City resident whose home was severely flooded when he woke up Thursday. “They promise to do something and then do nothing. Families are fleeing from their homes because they are flooded.”
Still, the burden is always hardest on those who have nothing. At a camp for displaced people in the town of Yousifiyya, south of Baghdad, the water was knee-high and pouring into tents, soaking mattresses and other belongings.
Iraq is home to more than three million displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees, many of whom are barely able to get by.
“Our furniture is soaked,” said 10-year-old Malak Saad. “We want to go home. I want to go to my school. I can’t stand living here in a tent. I want to go home and play with my friends.”