Four years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and
despite 22 billion dollars spent on recovery and reconstruction, Iraq's
environment remains in disastrous shape.
"The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are essentially open sewers," Azzam
Alwash, head of Nature Iraq, a conservation group based in Baghdad, told
Industrial waste, hospital waste, fertilizer 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.
"We inherited a terrible situation when it comes to the environment,"
Narmin Othman, Iraq's environment minister, said in a Tierramérica
The natural environment of Iraq has been devastated by three wars since
1980, and decades of neglect and mismanagement under the Saddam Hussein
regime (1979-2003). "The environmental laws were laughable under Saddam.
State-owned industries polluted at will," Alwash said.
Many of those industries were devoted to producing military material, and
have been bombed and looted, leaving the country dotted with highly toxic
industrial zones. Other contaminated sites belong to the oil and metal
The ongoing conflict -- launched by the United States on Mar. 20, 2003,
and which has fuelled anti-occupation sentiment and sectarian violence --
also means growing mountains of debris, including demolished buildings,
vehicles and military equipment, have to be cleaned up and stored
In 2005, a study by the Iraqi Ministry of Environment and the United
Nations Environment Programme (UNDP) identified 50 such environmental
"hotspots" and urged immediate action to clean up the worst five.
Two have been cleaned up, according to Minister Othman: the Al Quadissiya
metal manufacturer, saturated with toxic residues, bombed and pillaged;
and the abandoned pesticide factory Al Suwaira.
At least 40 million dollars is the estimated amount required to meet the
report's recommendations in full.
"Clean-up is needed on more than 500 state industrial plants. Each of
these would be a 'Superfund' site in the United States," says Nature
Iraq's Alwash. The United States has 1,240 toxic waste sites called
Superfunds, where billions of dollars are being spent on clean up.
The ministry lacks the money, equipment and trained personnel to do much
more, Minister Othman said. It has only been in existence three years and
has very limited capacity, agrees Alwash. There is little reliable data
and an enormous need to do basic environmental monitoring and to produce
studies and reports.
But 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 Alwash.
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 Othman. Although electrical service has improved -- the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers claims it now functions an average of 12 hours per
day -- the proliferation of gasoline and diesel generators fouls the air.
On another front, sewage treatment has seen some improvement.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reports that it has
rehabilitated sewage treatment plants, expanding access to services to
more than 5.1 million urban Iraqis, in a country of 26 million. This means
that "over 2.3 million Iraqis who had no clean drinking water in 2002 now
have access to safe, potable water," says USAID.
However, U.S. reconstruction efforts are winding down over the next year
to 18 months, said army Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Army
Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division, in a statement.
Roughly 3.5 billion dollars in U.S. reconstruction funds remain, and they
will be spent on water and sewage services and oil production. But the era
of the U.S. construction of large infrastructure projects is over, Corps
officials have declared.
Estimates for the total cost of rebuilding Iraq range between 80 and 100
Despite all the bad news, there have been environmental improvements in
terms of stronger legislation and awareness of environmental issues at
other government ministries, says Othman.
The highlight is the re-flooding of the Mesopotamian marshlands. Saddam
Hussein's government drained the marshes in the 1980s, destroying up to 90
percent of that 9,000-square-kilometre wetland ecosystem.
In 2003, a re-flooding program sponsored by Canada, Italy and
conservation groups began bringing approximately 25 and 35 percent of the
marshes back, along with many birds and other wildlife.
Minister Othman agrees the security situation has to improve, but in her
view, "The environment should be a priority for Iraqis along with security
and the economy, but it is not."
Iraq's pollution is without a doubt harming people's health, says Alwash.
"But that is not an important issue when you can step outside your door
and get a bullet in the head."
© 2007 Inter Press Service