Rianne ten Veen writes:
“Working on Iraq in my day job at a humanitarian aid agency at the time, I didn’t want to open any wounds by asking about the humanitarian situation. I knew all too well this was terrible and did not want to open any wounds, so I asked the pilot to teach me something about the environment in lraq.
“He all but cried, saying that the environment in his country had been ruined (something he could see getting worse, flying over the land) and that even if peace would come tomorrow, the people of Iraq and its environment would suffer the consequences for many years to come.”
The Los Angeles Times published an article from the Sunday Times describing Iraq as being “in the throes of what some officials are calling an environmental catastrophe”.
The accumulation of dust on the surface of Iraq’s dried-out land has led to more frequent and longer-lasting sandstorms, delaying flights, disrupting military operations and sending thousands of people to hospitals with breathing problems, according to Army Lt. Col. Marvin Treu, chief of the U.S. military’s Staff Weather Office.
Though the plains watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers once provided food for much of the Middle East, decades of war and mismanagement, compounded by two years of drought, are wreaking havoc on Iraq’s ecosystem, drying up riverbeds and marshes, turning arable land into desert, killing trees and plants, and transforming what was once the region’s most fertile area into a wasteland.
Iraq, once a food exporter, will this year have to import nearly 80% of its food, spending money that is urgently needed for reconstruction projects – in the USA?
The Inter Press Service adds another dimension:
Before the first Gulf attack in 1991, 95% of urban dwellers and 75% of rural dwellers were served by modern water supply systems that delivered treated water to homes and businesses.
Sanctions prevented the import of parts needed and the situation deteriorated; the March 2003 invasion of Iraq produced further degradation of Iraq’s water supply, sewerage and electrical supply systems. Treatment plants, pumping stations and generating stations were stripped of their equipment, supplies and electrical wiring by looters. The once-capable cadre of engineers and operating technicians were scattered or left the country.
Now, in 2011, the security situation means that taking water or soil samples can be a dangerous activity. The same applies to enforcing Iraq’s new environmental laws when much of the country remains lawless. “I drive by brick factories belching thick black smoke as they use illegal ‘black oil’ as a cheap fuel,” says says Azzam Alwash, head of Nature Iraq, a conservation group based in Baghdad.
The natural environment of Iraq has been devastated, not only by three wars since 1980, but by decades of neglect and mismanagement under the Saddam Hussein regime, when it is alleged that state-owned industries polluted at will. Many, devoted to producing military material, have been bombed and looted, leaving the country with highly toxic industrial zones. Other contaminated sites belong to the oil and metal industries.
“The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are now essentially open sewers,” said Azzam Alwash, head of Nature Iraq, a conservation group based in Baghdad. Industrial waste, hospital waste, fertiliser run-off from farming, as well as oil spills plague the two rivers that define the Mesopotamia region and which provide much of the irrigation and drinking water. [2007 incident pictured]
Towards the end of 2006 there were reports of millions of barrels of black oil being pumped into open mountain valleys and leaky reservoirs next to the Tigris River and set on fire. “Air pollution is very bad and getting worse” over the past three years, acknowledges Narmin Othman, Iraq’s environment minister.
The environment is not an important issue when you can step outside your door and get a bullet in the head
Despite all the bad news, Othman reports environmental improvements in terms of stronger legislation and awareness of environmental issues at other government ministries. However security and the economy are seen as the priorities. Monitoring the environment is hampered by the unsettled state of many areas. “Iraq’s pollution is without a doubt harming people’s health”, says Azzam Alwash, head of Nature Iraq, a conservation group based in Baghdad, “But that is not an important issue when you can step outside your door and get a bullet in the head.”
Army Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division, said that U.S. reconstruction efforts will wind down over the next 18 months, but the emphasis on exporting commercial and industrial services is increasing.
Reconstruction or plunder?
The United States International Trade Administration department advises U.S. companies interested in finding an Iraqi agent or representative, investing in the Iraqi oil and gas sector, selling oil and gas related technology products or services, or creating joint ventures and other types of business relationships.
The relevant section on website ‘http://trade.gov/iraq/’ also notes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service publication of a report outlining regulatory requirements and import procedures for food and agricultural imports to Iraq . . . No doubt another section is promoting arms sales.