December 6th - The Mess Between Two Rivers
08 Dec 2003
Iraq's unseen environmental catastrophe and its health consequences.
Mesopotamia is the land between two rivers and both of them are filthy. It feels a little impolite to say so, of such legendary and ancient veins of the lifeblood of the cradle of so much of our civilization. Rude or not, though, it’s true.

Apologies if I start mutating into a former geography student in all of this – I’ll try my best to write in English. The Tigris and Euphrates in the Baghdad area are running low on water because of dams up-river: there are 28 in Turkey alone. The discharge of the Tigris has fallen from around 40 billion cubic metres in the 1960s to around 16 billion now. It means pollutants are more concentrated. If the water has already been used for irrigation further up the river it’s already contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers before it reaches Iraq.

During the sanctions it was impossible to repair the country’s sewage and water systems, damaged by both war and old age. Pipes were placed on hold for a long time by the sanctions committee, lest anyone should attempt to fire anything unusual out of them. Corrosion leads to leaching of heavy metals from the pipes.

Husni, a professor of Environmental Pollution, says there hasn’t yet been any testing of Iraq’s tap water or sewage but, when he worked in Libya and elsewhere, lead, cobalt, zinc, magnesium and manganese were found in both tap and sewage water from pipes which were corroded much as they are here. Most heavy metals cause damage to the brain, liver, kidneys and other internal organs.

Half a million tons of raw sewage a day (still contaminated with heavy metals) were dumped into Iraq’s fresh water courses – the Tigris, Euphrates and their tributaries. Some is used as fertilizer, so the heavy metals pass into the soil and from there to the plants, into the animals, concentrating in the people who eat them. Seepage of ground water into the river brings with it not only the heavy metals but also more pesticides and fertilisers from the irrigation water, as well as salinated drainage water.

There aren’t even effective road laws here, let alone environmental or health and safety ones, so industrial waste, chemicals and petrol also end up in the river. Husni says under Saddam no one could mention environmental pollution, as it would imply criticism of his policies, and since Saddam, no one cares. Instead of environmental legislation, he says, now there are companies wanting quick and easy money.

Apart from the water, the sewage, the heavy metals, the chemical pesticides, fertilisers and wastes and all the rest of it, there are areas of high radioactivity dotted about with no warning signs, where kids are playing and people are doing their ordinary stuff – the Christian Science Monitor recently surveyed a few areas with a Geiger Counter and found four with extremely high radiation levels.

There’s a ‘tank cemetery’ near Ad-Dora where all the burnt out armoured vehicles were dumped, inside Baghdad, where people cut pieces of metal off the ruins to use for all kinds of stuff. Some of them know the tanks might have been hit with radioactive weaponry but ignore that knowledge as it’s their only source of income. The risks of illness later are less than those of destitution now in a country of 60-80% unemployment.

There isn’t any sort of public health survey or statistics. There is no way of knowing, other than by knocking on every door in a given area, how many people have become ill, how many have died, whether there are patterns among these illnesses, how they correspond with sources of environmental contamination, whether there was heavy fighting there, what weapons were used. It’s urgent because memories, pollutants and people will disperse, the effects will go on and the chance to monitor them will be lost.

Less dramatically, there’s rubbish everywhere, including the rivers – rat infested and toxic, and no one to remove it. Baghdad, Husni says, is on a lake of sewage. The piles of rubbish, I suppose, are the islands. How romantic. As I just mentioned, between 60 and 80% of the population is without a job. Part of this is because there are no public services. No one is employed as a dustman. No one is employed as a worker in the municipal tip or the incinerator. I was about to write that no one is employed in the recycling depot, but I suppose that would be an unnecessary waste of pixels.

Some are dying from poverty and pollution and others are raking in fortunes to put paint on school walls and build mobile phone networks (incidentally it’s looking good for those who bet on ‘when hell freezes over’ for the mobile phone network to become available).

So Hosni wants to set up an organisation which will empower and educate local people to clean up their own environment, where possible, and otherwise to demand that the local, national and occupying authorities do so. He wants to carry out surveys door to door, provide a small salary for local unemployed people to remove the rubbish, collect up the litter on the streets and dispose of it.

He says at the airport, where fierce fighting went on, the topsoil from the area was scooped up by the US forces and taken away. This story is backed by other people. I believe it’s called ‘landscaping’ and it conveniently means that no one can take a soil sample and people can only guess at the type of weaponry that was used there. They’re pretty sure they know, but they can’t prove anything.

The road to the airport used to be like a wood, he says, but the Americans have cut down all the trees along it, for their safety. “It takes years for a palm tree to grow and only a few seconds to chop it down. Baghdad needs some green cover.”

It seems to be that, often, people’s professional knowledge is augmented by personal sadness. After returning to Iraq from work overseas, his brother, a military officer, took him to see the bunkers where the aircraft were kept which had been hit by the Americans in the 1991 war. Around that time his wife became pregnant. She got ill and, almost 7 months into the pregnancy, scans showed the baby was developing abnormally. They lost the child. His face, says Husni, looked like their second child. He says there’s no way of knowing what caused his wife’s illness or the baby’s abnormal development but that’s the importance of finding out. It won’t, he says, make him popular with the Americans.