Iraq’s Silent Killer

Nour Sami Abu Zayed’s farm on the southern edge of Baghdad, wedged between the Diyala river and the Rustumiya sewage treatment plant, was never the ideal place to raise a family. Sickness bred by contaminated water first appeared in the village in 1990 when the plant was damaged during the first Gulf War. But the area turned lethal a year ago when the plant, one of the largest in Iraq, stopped treating sewage at all after looters stripped Rustumiya to the ground in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. Today the toxic sludge of one and a half million people flows unchecked in a putrid black stream straight into the Diyala, a narrow tributary of the Tigris, the capital’s main waterway. As a result, Abu Zayed’s village, with some 50 farming families, is virtually floating on human excrement.

Abu Zayed and his neighbors know better than to drink from the river, so much of their scarce hard currency goes to buy clean water from tanker trucks in town. But the effects of the pollution are everywhere. “The smell makes it hard to breathe, and we are always sick,” said the 40-year old father of four. “We can’t even wash our clothes.” The farmers irrigate their crops with tainted water, and their livestock drink from the river. The children have been warned many times not to swim in the Diyala, but to escape the blistering heat of Iraq’s summer, many still do. And when the stink from the river is too much, the kids bathe in a collecting basin that is covered with a bubbling white foam like the head on some kind of rancid beer. Three of Abu Zayed’s young cousins, all under the age of six, have died of liver and lung aliments in the past year. Now he is worried when his red-eyed, 12-year old son complains that his left kidney hurts at night.

As dire as it is, Abu Zayed’s situation is commonplace in Iraq, where almost all human sewage goes untreated. Sooner or later it ends up in the Tigris and Euphrates river systems that form the country’s only water supply. The dirty water has turned Iraq into a vast petri dish of life-threatening diseases, such as typhoid fever, hepatitis, and cholera. But the country’s air and soil are just as noxious. Pollution — from industrial dumping to car exhaust fumes and perhaps even radioactive waste — is everywhere. After years of abuse and the depredations of three major wars, say Iraqi scientists, the environment of Iraq is in a state of crisis. “Environmental problems? You name it we have it,” said Dr. Jamal Al-Abaychi, a professor at Baghdad University. But as long as car bombs, assassinations and kidnappings are a part of daily life, no one has time for this silent killer. “People’s priorities are different,” says al-Abaychi, “security and economic growth.” But, he says, Iraq cannot afford to ignore such a pervasive problem: “At some point terrorism is going to be solved, but environmental problems get worse with time.”

For the first time in its history, Iraq has a Ministry of the Environment, created last year by the now-disbanded Governing Council. It is located in a small building on the opposite side of the Tigris from the Green Zone, the center of political power in Baghdad. Sitting in a narrow, windowless office, the Minister, Mishkal Al-Mu’min, a 35-year old former professor of international law, admits she inherited a daunting set of problems, just a few of which would strain the resources of a first-world government. Under Saddam, military installations were exempt from environmental regulation. The Ministry still has no access to these places which could have been involved in the dumping or storage of hazardous materials, possibly even from the regime’s former chemical weapons programs. Industrial pollution is an even bigger threat. Large state-owned companies do most of the manufacturing in Iraq, and they were almost entirely free of environmental oversight for years. Like other centrally-planned economies, Iraq permitted gross negligence of proper waste disposal and air standards and the scale of the fallout is only beginning to be understood. But in a sign of how bad it could be, fines for industrial dumping set by the old regime have long since been eroded by inflation, and now constitute no more than a slap on the wrist: an industrial polluter might have to pay $60.

The problem reaches down to the country’s grass roots. Farmers have long used chemical pesticides and fertilizers without any training, saturating the countryside with toxins that can take years to break down. One particularly egregious tactic is to poison sections of rivers with pesticides to collect dead fish that are then fed to livestock, in the process polluting both the rivers and the food supply. And air quality has deteriorated badly under the influx of post-Saddam car imports. Most of the vehicles are used and none of them are subjected to emissions inspections. Add to this asthmatic mix the hundreds of thousands of diesel generators used by homes and businesses to compensate for the country’s frequently failing power system, and you understand why even Iraqis who don’t smoke suffer persistent respiratory ailments.

And there remain persistent worries about the lingering presence of depleted uranium material from armor-piercing weapons used by the U.S. in the first Gulf War. Depleted uranium — the hard metal residue left after highly radioactive uranium is extracted for reactor fuel or nuclear weapons — is mildly radioactive and chemically toxic but supposedly harmless as long as it remains outside the body. Saddam repeatedly claimed that depleted uranium was poisoning Iraqis, though he offered no proof. But Iraqi scientists still say that there is a marked increase in cancer cases in southern Iraq — the region closest to the fighting — by potentially by as much as 20 percent in ten years. Nor have Iraqi experts determined whether the site of the country’s only nuclear reactor project at Tuwaitha, which was bombed and destroyed by the Israelis in 1981, has left dangerous contaminants behind. In the meantime, villagers surrounding Tuwaitha use tanks that once stored radioactive material as drinking troughs for their cows. Then, says a spokesman for the Iraqi Green Movement, a group of concerned scientists in Baghdad, the farmers sell the milk to local markets.

Not surprisingly, Iraqi officials have yet to measure the true extent of the problem. “Iraq is a patient in dire need of a through physical examination,” said Dr, Fareed Yassin, a physicist and an official of the Iraqi Independent Democratic party. Research under the old regime was scant and highly politicized. Now, even if technocrats have the skills and expertise to survey the damage, it is too dangerous for them to go out into the field. And almost all international environmental organizations that could help in the process have long since left Iraq out of fear for their own safety.

In any case, the Ministry of Environment, with a budget that is reportedly around $1 million, has few tools with which to tackle these problems. It has no modern laboratories, few trained engineers and technicians, and almost no modern equipment. Al-Mu’min tries to put a bright face on the situation. “I think of what we can achieve rather than what we can’t,” she says. One of her goals during the short tenure of the interim government will be to put some firm environmental laws in place. But there is little hope such laws could be enforced amid the country’s disorder.

In the coming months, environmental issues may get a boost from the U.S. now that Ambassador John Negroponte has taken his place as the head American official in the country. Negroponte, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in the mid 1980′s, so he has some expertise and interest in the subject. That would be a welcome change. Until now, Iraq’s environmental ills have received scant attention, says a senior U.S. official. “It’s hard to get people in the U.S. to pay attention to these problems,” he says, “because they are not dramatic. The environment is not a priority for the Bush Administration.”

Still, military officers on patrol in polluted areas are well aware of the dangers posed by problems like unchecked sewage. Some have tried to do what they can, though efforts at reconstruction have frequently been delayed by violence and unrest. The Rustumiya sewage treatment plant was supposed to resume partial operations in October, but a delay in the arrival of spare parts has put that off until December. “What you’re talking about is cramming 10 years of repair work into two or three years,” says Major Steve Burk, of the 20th Engineer Battalion in the 1st Cavalry Division. His unit is in charge of overseeing the rebuilding of sewage systems in residential neighborhoods near Rustumiya, including the notoriously filthy Sadr City. When the 20th arrived in March, they discovered that almost nothing had been done. Then in April, the Shia uprising in Sadr City shut down most work in the area. But block by block, the unit has begun making headway, its officers say. They are hiring neighborhood companies to clear pipes and dig trenches, a way to put the project into Iraqi hands and support the local economy. The past few weeks have been relatively calm, says Capt. Zachary Miller, out inspecting sites in a three-humvee convoy last week. “If it remains as it is, security won’t have a significant impact on getting some real progress done.” But several minutes later, as if to underscore the fragility of such optimism, Miller’s vehicle was struck by a remotely-detonated roadside bomb as it passed along a crowded street. The blast injured the rear gunner, blew a tire, shattered bulletproof glass and overturned two nearby civilian vehicles. “I’m sorry about that,” he said nonchalantly, like an airline pilot apologizing for turbulence. “As you can see, nothing is easy here.”