Cleaning up after ISIS: how Iraq’s new chemicals team is trying to undo years of conflict pollution

At the precise moment when ISIS fighters were prepping for their retreat from the Iraqi city of Ramadi in February 2016, Hassan Mohammed lay in bed struggling to breathe.

For nine months, through the jihadist occupation of his hometown, the young engineering student had huffed and wheezed from morning to night. And for nine months, Mohammed, an asthmatic, had just about sustained himself with inhalers and a self-imposed house arrest. “I couldn’t go outside,” he said. “Pollution had always been bad because of the factories, the farm sprays, the desert dust. The fighting made everything much worse.”

But now, as the occupiers set about concealing their withdrawal from circling jets, Mohammed was convinced he was going to die. First, ISIS fighters lined the streets with burning tires, and then they blew up strategic installations across the city, including a pesticides plant. As the acrid smoke and plumes of dust seeped through the window cracks into Mohammed’s room, no manner of medication or precautions could keep the billowing filth at bay. “It’s a terrifying feeling when your lungs don’t work,” he said. “I still feel it. It doesn’t go away.”

ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or Da’esh) has more or less been defeated in Iraq, but throughout the areas it once occupied, the group’s toxic legacy lives on. The ground is still laced with noxious chemicals, and the country’s waterways are still sullied with everything from oil spills to mustard gas residue. In one of the more egregious environmental calamities, a makeshift ISIS refinery leaked an 11 km-long oil trail near Hawija. Battered already by a raft of serious pre-existing air and water quality issues, many Iraqis – farmers, respiratory disease sufferers, and all – feel their war hasn’t yet ended.

If all goes according to plan, though, some help might finally be at hand. Beginning this year, the Iraqi government and UN Environment have partnered up to build a cross-ministry team capable of tackling these pollution woes head on. By enhancing the government’s capabilities, this programme ought to help Iraq as it cleans up its tattered landscape. And by refining the state’s control of chemicals, the team is dead set on preventing a repeat of ISIS’s exploitation of pesticides and fertilizers to make bombs. “Without a wise use of chemicals, it will be difficult to move on,” said Jassim Al-Falahi, Deputy Minister of Health and Environment. “Terrorist groups used simple chemicals to hurt my country and our people. We must do something about this.” It’s little exaggeration to say that Iraq’s future might hinge in part on the success of this effort, officials suggest.

Iraq is among the first of seven countries selected to participate in UN Environment’s Special Programme, an initiative designed to help states meet their chemicals and waste management obligations under the Basel, Rotterdam, Minamata and Stockholm conventions and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management. Chosen from more than 40 applicants, these countries will receive everything from technical know-how, to assistance with drafting hazardous waste management legislation. The hope is that once the institutional capacity is built, these partner nations will be able to stand on their own two feet. “Our idea is that this investment will kickstart the strengthening of the institutional structures, systems and its people, and then they will ensure its sustainability,” said Nalini Sharma, head of Secretariat of the Special Programme, also known as the Chemical and Waste Management Programme. “It’s seed funding and then they will take it over.” This project is funded by the US, the European Union, and eight European countries (Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Austria, Denmark and Belgium).

In Iraq’s case, much of the basic chemical pollution-fighting framework already exists. As a major oil producer with large chunks of farmland under cultivation, it’s had more than its fair share of industrial, agricultural, and oil-field spills. The challenge now is to hone strategies and practices. The Ministry of Environment, which is taking the lead on this project, has units capable of assessing contaminated sites, but lacks the equipment and skills to fully document and cleanse them. “We’ve done environmental health assessments in the liberated areas, and we are starting to build a database of environment-related disasters,” said Salma Abdel Fattah, head of the Ministry’s Environmental Health Branch. “But the size of the area we must cover is just too big – and we’re short of gear.” By incorporating new methodologies on site assessment, they hope to make faster headway.

In other ministries, too, those charged with getting a grip on Iraq’s chemical use say they’re ill-equipped to cope with the magnitude of their responsibilities. The Ministry of Oil insists that it takes spills seriously, but that the high volume of imported chemicals in the industry, war damage, and aging infrastructure have hobbled its efforts. “It can be difficult to keep up because the blowing up of these oil pipelines by terrorists causes huge pollution,” said Mohammed Fariss, Deputy Chief Engineer of the Ministry of Oil’s Department of Environmental Research. “There are also plans to increase oil production, so the challenges are enormous.” From the Ministry of Electricity, which must now deal with lethal chemicals that have seeped into the ground from blown up sub-stations, to the Ministry of Industry, which is charged with rehabilitating damaged factories, at least a dozen branches of government will receive some kind of training.

None of these challenges are entirely new, of course. The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s riddled swathes of land with chemicals that resulted from explosion of landmines, as have other conflicts and more run-of-the-mill daily leaks and accidents since then. Never before, though, had so much of the damage been inflicted by such easily-obtained, garden-variety chemicals, officials say. It’s injected a new urgency into the discussion. The Ministry of Agriculture insists it has maximized efforts to control pesticide and fertilizer distribution, introducing non-toxic natural fertilizer in places and conducting aerial pesticide spraying itself in others. “We are making sure that when we sell pesticides to the farms, the amount is relative to the size of the land,” said Ali Karim Mohammed, head of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Environment Department. “We do this, so no chemicals go to waste and there’s nothing extra.” In the meantime, security forces are clamping down on the use of chemicals in some liberated areas, inadvertently hurting farmers in the process.

The military and police, for their part, say they’ve upped the monitoring of chemical imports from outside the country – and their transit within. Only six border crossings are allowed to handle chemicals, while the Prime Minister recently ordered that all chemical shipments require a license to go from one province to another. At the Bab Al-Sharqi market in downtown Baghdad, fertilizer vendors say they’re now subject to many more inspections than they ever were in the past. “From our perspective, the assistance of national security, the awareness that this is a national security issue, has given us real support and a bigger chance of success,” said Luay al-Mokhtar, Director of the Ministry of Environment’s Chemical Monitoring and Site Assessment Department.

Still, the obstacles to success are daunting. UN Environment provides only limited funds, and Iraq’s government – dependent as it is on sometimes erratic oil prices – has had difficulty maintaining many of its long-term projects. “A few years ago, we put forward a national plan to counter oil pollution, which included trying to establish an alarm system in Kirkuk and Salahaddin governorate. The pipes are old, spills are frequent, and it could be in Baghdad so fast,” said Mohammed Fariss. “But we had to stop because of financing. Everything just stopped in 2014 [when the oil price collapsed, and ISIS emerged].” Poor coordination between relevant ministries, many of whom don’t necessarily consider the environment a top priority amid so many other problems, also remains an issue.

Gathered together around a Ministry of Environment boardroom on a dazzlingly hot day in early September, Deputy Minister Falahi and his team say they’re well aware of the challenges they face. The Iraqi government has previously committed to environmental plans and never followed through. This time, though, the chemicals team are adamant things will pan out differently. The national security implications of under-regulated chemical use have struck a chord across Baghdad, as perhaps has the severity of the country’s pollution. In Basra, in southern Iraq, thousands of residents protested horrific water quality throughout the summer.

Most importantly, perhaps, environmental officials say their young-ish institutions are finally coming of age. The Ministry of Environment was established after the US-led invasion of 2003, and Iraq became party to international chemical and waste management conventions after that. It’s only now that they’re really feeling their way through Baghdad’s sometimes opaque and often byzantine decision-making networks. “One of the keys to success is taking into account other parties’ difficulties and all the barriers they face,” said Luay Al-Mokhtar. “We’re learning. We’re still on the road, and there are a lot of areas that we need to cover. But with good planning and support, I think we will be successful in the future.”