BAGHDAD, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Long after the shooting and bombing stops, Iraqis will still be dying from the war.
Destroyed factories have become untended hazardous waste sites, leaking poison into the water and the soil. Forests in the north and palm groves in the south have been obliterated to remove the enemy's hiding places.
Rivers are salted, water is contaminated with sewage, and land is strewn with mines, unexploded bombs, chemical waste, rubble and trash.
"When we talk about it, people may think we are overreacting. But in fact the environmental catastrophe that we inherited in Iraq is even worse than it sounds," Iraqi Environment Minister Nermeen Othman said in an interview.
"War destroys countries' environments, not just their people. War and its effects have led to changes in the social, economic and environmental fabric," she said. "It will take centuries to restore the natural environment of Iraq."
The ecological destruction has already caused increases in rates of cancer and infectious disease.
"Most of the infectious diseases and cancer are environmental diseases. When we talk about the environment we mean health."
Although the fighting has not stopped, violence is now at four-year lows. Work has already begun to clean up after the war, but it is slow.
With the help of the United Nations Environment Programme in 2005, Iraq identified 25 pollution hotspots that needed the most urgent cleanup, many of them military manufacturing sites.
LONG WAY TO GO
Two sites -- the Qadisiya chemical factory in southern Iraq which was bombed in 2003 and saturated with toxic residue, and the al-Suwayra fertiliser factory south of Baghdad -- have so far been cleaned up. Othman said it will cost billions of dollars to clean the rest of the sites.
The environment ministry has planted 17 million trees in Iraq so far this year -- up from 7.5 million last year -- helping to undo the damage in places where palm groves and forests were chopped down to remove hiding places for rebels.
By far the biggest environmental success since the 2003 invasion has been the reflooding of Iraq's vast southern marshes, where the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates flood the land before reaching the Gulf.
The marshes were drained by former dictator Saddam Hussein, to divert the water for agriculture and to make the long border with Iran easier to defend. That destroyed a unique, diverse natural habitat for wildlife and wrecked a centuries-old native Marsh Arab culture.
"The drainage of the marshes is one of the ugly crimes against the environment of the world," said Othman.
With help from the U.N., the Japanese government and local efforts, Iraq has reflooded and restored 55 percent of the marshland since 2003.
Such successes are important, but a host of other environmental issues have yet to be tackled.
Iraq is planted with 25 million land mines. Chemical weapons and depleted uranium munitions have created 105 contaminated areas, the minister said. Sewers need attention and more than 60 percent of Iraq's fresh water is polluted.
Upriver dams built by Syria, Turkey and Iran have worsened the damage caused by neglect of Iraq's infrastructure, increasing water shortages, salination and pollution.
"I do not blame the government's emphasis on security because the security issue is important. But the environment is also important," Othman said.
(Editing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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