Rapid urbanisation in Erbil and Suli has led to lower living standards

By Mufid Abdulla – 6.10.2012 – KURDISTAN TRIBUNE – The cities of the south of Kurdistan are growing at a rapid pace, especially following the defeat of the old regime in 2003 and the emergence of a new era for Iraq without Saddam. The south of Kurdistan has become an emerging marketplace for business and this has attracted to its cities not only migrants from the countryside but also Kurds from outside Kurdistan. Across the developing world, the cities are growing rapidly (1). One main factor encouraging movement from rural areas to the towns and cities of south Kurdistan is that the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) policies have provided few incentives for peasants to stick with agriculture.

A big problem facing our environment globally is the population explosion. The rate of growth globally is now 1.096% per annum (2). Kurdistan is obviously included in this, though this article mainly focuses on urbanisation. Kurdistan’s population growth indicates that its infant mortality rate has reduced rapidly and new child birth rates have been reported on a daily basis for the sample of our case; the region has a young and growing population, with 36% of the population aged 0-14 years, and only 4% aged over 63. The median age in Kurdistan is just over 20, meaning more than 50% are less than the age of 20. (3)

City of Erbil

If we consider the rise in the population of a city such as Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, the population of the city district is now estimated at 1.5 million. The city comprises a different terrain compared to the other two main cities of this region, as it is largely flat rather than mountainous. tIt has expanded on all sides – to the north, south, east and west – and this has stimulated demand for the most basic services and, in turn, failure to meet this demand has stagnated progress in living standards. One of the main problems in the city, as I witnessed a few weeks ago during my visit to Erbil, is the state of the roads and transport networks, which are so poor and cause hundreds of car accidents and delays in traffic travelling between the outskirts of Erbil and the city centre. Using public transport for this journey will cost you at least $5 Iraqi and there are no major buses operating in the city. Rumours are circulating that top politicians have agreed with big companies to encourage people to use private transport so that the issue of investing in public transport can be ignored.

In addition, the heavy traffic is adding to serious environmental problems (4). When I was in Beijing, China in 2010 I could not clearly see the buildings opposite the hotel where I was staying due to heavy pollution from traffic and the growth in industry; this is now the case in Erbil too, where, when walking in the city centre, you can hardly see anything due to smoke, pollution and sometimes sandstorms.

Ten years ago, the city had just a few districts but now it has several. Electricity is no longer in short supply but sometimes it causes havoc to daily life through power cuts and unreliability. Due to the expansion of the city, the government has introduced a policy to build affordable houses for middle class people. The mayor of Erbil is a former engineer and has conducted a lot of good projects but he has not been trained to cherish an emerging city like Erbil. The main projects have been implemented to further empower the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) political apparatus in Erbil, with most projects of the city’s urbanisation corruptly going to cronies rather than to companies genuinely bidding for the work. For example, two weeks ago the advertising for the building of a huge accommodation project was released all over Kurdistan, with the capital of the project stated as £420 million. One of the big companies sent their Financial Director to Erbil to find out about the project and on his return he reported to the Chief Executive of the company that, “people have seen me for the project but did not show any seriousness whatsoever about our company or what we are doing”. By that he meant that things had already been put in place without local companies knowing about it.

Recently, law and order has become a major concern for the ordinary people of Erbil. In some parts of the city the crime rates are so high, to the extent that people are scared to enter these areas or districts. Just recently the committee for the security of Kurdistan highlighted the fact that fifteen people had been kidnapped inside Erbil without anyone knowing the reasons or attempting to rescue them. For ordinary people, it is not clear if there is politics behind this or not.

City of Suli

The city of Suli is the second largest city after Erbil and it has seen a rapid expansion and you can see that this is already making life so difficult for ordinary people. As Michael Bloomberg, the current Mayor of New York City, said: “To achieve big results, sometimes you have to start small.” The city of Suli has experienced rapid building developments everywhere. The construction industry has been motivated not by local entrepreneurs but by the local Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leadership because they have been granted the lion’s share of each project and yet again the profits have gone to the party leadership and their cronies. If we consider the example of one project called the ‘German Village’, that project alone has yielded millions of dollars for the PUK and it has been supervised by Omar Fatah of the PUK politburo. That project has expanded even further now; you can see that the beautiful Suli countryside and green mountains of Azmar have been obstructed by the new development and it has taken away the natural beauty of the mountains located to the north of the Suli city.

The city’s mayors are not up to the challenge and have no new ideas for improving the city’s infrastructure. The city has had a history of three former mayors each being affiliated to different political parties and each, in turn, has seen their fate sealed either with death or with them fleeing the country. The Audit Office in Suli has written thousands of reports on these issues of corruption linked to the City Council of Suli and yet nobody has been prosecuted (5). The small companies in the city are largely absent from the construction projects. None of the mayors have the capability to produce any strategies. Some of the failures are understandable. The Council in Suli cannot fight the most persistent problems, ranging from low educational achievements to poverty levels. These mayors of Suli think that, if you have the money you can do this job but they do not realise that the main impediment to building the city of Suli is in the intervention of party politics within all these projects.

Another example of one of the city’s infrastructure projects is the building of a hospital with 400 beds which was started on the outskirts of Suli. A few years ago, several companies initiated work for this project and then they stopped for one reason or another. It is now a joke amongst local people who call it the ‘hospital of 400 years’ because it has taken so long to finish and, as we write, this the hospital is still in its final stage of completion with work still pending and nobody knows when it is going to finish. Considering this is the most significant project for the city, surely it should be completed as a priority, particularly considering there is only one main hospital and Accident and Emergency access in the city. The incapability of previous mayors in addressing the problems of this city could not be more evident in Suli, which has almost one million people.

Some time ago the two ruling parties criticised the media for not making positive comments about their projects but, when I recently visited the area myself, I could not see any ground-breaking initiatives by the government to deal with the increasing problems. Another example of the government’s failure is the building of the tunnel of Azmar which in reality should have been a strategic project. The city hired an Iranian company, and this is even stranger when we consider the fact that the Iranian government themselves hired German companies to build their tunnels in Iran! However, the tunnel was finished two years ago and there were so many deficiencies in the project that in no sense whatsoever does the tunnel look like a modern one. Millions of dollars were wasted and the original company asked for more money. The whole design of the tunnel provides no symbol of any civilization; it is dark and there is no lighting and no ventilation which raises questions of what would happen in the event of accidents, etc. – again questions which nobody has got around to answering.

As in the case of Erbil, the city of Suli has no major bus networks and the increase in private cars is causing a huge rise in deaths and injuries to ordinary people due to the heavy traffic on the roads. The residents of Suli have little opportunity to make quick trips outside the city as it takes so long to get to other towns. The residents of Suli are not inspired to be innovative or to develop their own ideas due to the fact that corruption is rife and people know that most projects are controlled by party politics, i.e. the PUK. The city has recently experienced the outbreak of a cholera epidemic due to infections from the water system and generally poor hygiene. In addition, levels of social crime have been rising from murders, robberies, etc.


The mayors of the three majors cities of Erbil, Suli and Dhok need to be qualified, energetic, independent people with the knowledge and drive to implement techniques similar to those that ensured successful building projects in major world cities such as Paris and Tokyo. Additionally, the KRG needs to sponsor students, inside and outside Kurdistan, who can study and research current urbanisation processes to help these mayors meet all the challenges.


Todaro, Michael (1982) Economics for the Developing World, Longman London & New York, pages 194-198

US. Central Intelligence Agency website, July 2012

UNDP Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004, Volume 1 Tabulation Report, Table 1.6: Age in broad groups, mean and median age.

Wlliamson.J, Miner. C (1991) The World Economy, Harvester Wheatsheaf, page 424-426

Explanation by the President of the Audit Office in Suli, book in two chapters in Kurdish, published in 2008 by Nergis publishing, Suli