Three decades of armed conflict in Iraq have decimated the country. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, while countless more have been wounded and displaced. It has damaged Iraq’s vital infrastructure and industrial areas, polluting the country and wiping agricultural lands off the map. The government’s capacity for industrial and environmental oversight has diminished severely and the occupation by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) heightened long-standing concerns over the country’s environmental safety. Iraq’s chemical pollution in the wake of ISIS puts more agriculture, livestock, water and human health at risk, but U.N. organizations and U.S. programs are helping the country to recover.
The ISIS Occupation Consequences
During their occupation of the country, ISIS captured the Alas and Ajeel oil fields in the Hamrin mountains and seized control of Qayyarah oil field and the Baiji oil refinery. Qayyarah oil field produced 30,000 barrels daily and Baiji produced more than one-third of Iraq’s domestic oil production before this occurrence. According to the ISIS’ scorched earth strategy, they ignited oil wells around the Qayyarah, Alas and Ajeel oil fields, and during their retreat of Baiji, they devastated the facility not only by setting fire to wells but to oil tanks and critical infrastructure. When the Iraqi army recaptured the Qayyarah oil field in September 2016, ISIS had set 20 wells on fire as they retreated.
Satellite imagery captured by UNOSAT, the Operational Satellite Applications Program of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, showed that smoke from the fires deposited soot over the town of Qayyarah and its surrounding area. The fires had released immense quantities of toxic residues, while mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left behind by ISIS complicated efforts by Iraqi firefighters. They managed to extinguish the last fire in March 2017, but by then, all that was left was a blackened and contaminated landscape. When Wim Zwijnenburg, a lead researcher at PAX, a Dutch nonprofit and nongovernmental peace organization, visited the Qayyarah region in 2017, he saw burning oil slicks still flowing from oil wells, lakes filled with solidified crude oil and white sheep black from soot.
Suffering From the Effects of Chemical Warfare
ISIS’ chemical weapons usage was rampant in Iraq and the concealed improvised chemical devices they planted upon their retreats still threaten citizens of Mosul and its surrounding areas. Oil spills from exploded wells, refineries, trucks, tanks and pipelines, as well as mustard gas residue, have infiltrated soil, ground and surface waters. Chemicals found in crude oil, such as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals have subsequently influenced drinking water and agricultural land. When released by fires, these dangerous substances can affect natural resources and civilian health in communities far beyond their burning epicenters.
Additionally, as the oil from the spills dried out, hazardous volatile organic compounds have been released into the air and have caused liver and kidney damage and cancer in humans and animals. Damage to Mosul’s electrical grid has resulted in high levels of Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination in the city associated with slower mental development in children and cancer.
Toxic chemicals released by oil fires had impacted the respiratory system of Iraqis and chemical compounds found in these fires can lead to acid rain that destroys soil, all negatively impacting vegetation. Citizens view the agricultural aftermath of Iraq’s chemical pollution as a long-term consequence. It has compromised their livelihoods by killing livestock and destroying cultivated and grazing land, ridding livestock breeders and farmers of their income. ISIS also used university laboratories in Mosul to manufacture chemical bombs. Their lack of safeguards when handling chemical agents and hazardous waste now pose serious contamination risks to the nearby environment.
Medical Treatment and Wash Needs
High levels of radiation and other toxic substances from previous conflicts still flow into the Iraqi environment, but it is Iraq’s chemical pollution in the wake of ISIS that heightens the concerns of Qayyarah’s citizens. Aside from burns, deformations and other disabilities, chemical weapons, burning oil and military remnants can mutate human genes and result in more defects at birth.
In March 2017, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) collaborated with medical authorities and the World Health Organization (WHO) to treat patients suffering from toxic exposure. According to a U.N. report, in September 2018, U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Douglas A. Silliman, declared a health disaster in Basrah after approximately 80,000 people contracted gastrointestinal illness from contaminated water between August and September. In response, USAID allocated $750,000 to address immediate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) need.
Cleaning Up a Toxic Wasteland
In 2018, the Iraqi government and U.N. Environment Programme partnered to build a cross-ministry team to tackle Iraq’s chemical pollution. The joint initiative’s objective is to prevent future exploitation of toxic substances for chemical warfare through government capabilities enhancement and chemicals control improvement. As a selected participant of the U.N. Environment’s Special Programme, Iraq will receive comprehensive information and training to help it meet its chemicals and waste management program obligations.
Iraq’s Ministry of Environment is capable of assessing contaminated sites but lacks the equipment and skills for cleaning and full documentation. The hope is the initiative will provide strategies and enhance on-site assessment methodologies to expedite the cleanup of Iraq’s Chemical Pollution.
– Julianne Russo