Iraq: Years of war, current insecurity takes toll on environment

BAGHDAD, 5 June 2007 (IRIN) - Neglected factories, military scrapyards and battle sites containing hazardous material across the country pose a serious threat to Iraq's environment and to public health, experts warn. The current security situation is also hampering rubbish collections and clean-up operations.

"Chemical and other forms of hazardous material can easily be found in many areas of Iraq. Military scrapyards aren't destroyed, but rather left wherever they are. Urgent clean-up measures are needed, but few financial resources are available, while ongoing insecurity is preventing specialists from even reaching the sites in question," Iraqi environmental specialist, Professor Rand Abdel-Jaffar of Iraq's Baghdad University, said.

"Many chemical sites have been destroyed during the past wars and weapons production sites looted by insurgents and militias, leaving people exposed to hazardous material, and the environment polluted," she said.

In addition to damage to fauna and flora, according to Abdel-Jaffer, without clean-up measures, heavy metals left near rivers or even in the ground will result in the poisoning of ground water, leading to serious health concerns for the local population.

Military conflicts over the past quarter of a century in Iraq have resulted in large quantities of military debris, including unexploded ordnance, spent cartridge shells, abandoned military vehicles, toxic and radioactive material, contaminated soil and demolition waste, along with human and animal remains and packaging from military and humanitarian supplies, the academic said.

Industrial waste

According to Amatullah Ibrahim, a senior official in Iraq's Ministry of Environment, significant sources of hazardous waste are oil and petrochemical complexes, fertilizer plants, refineries and chemical plants, as well as a number of small and medium-sized industries such as electroplating facilities, tanneries, workshops and garages.

"Sludge from oil storage tanks, oil well drilling, from the drilling of wells, oil spills, lubricants from pumps and other machinery used in petrochemical industries, are some of the main causes of soil contamination in Iraq. There aren't any projects preventing such materials from being dumped in rivers or on the soil and soon the results will be evident," Ibrahim said, adding that fish stocks in many Iraqi rives had already dropped significantly.

Most refineries in Iraq operate with outdated machinery which produces large amounts of waste, which is incorrectly disposed of, he added.

"Urgent environmental laws need to be imposed in Iraq. The high level of air and ground pollution resulting from industrial processes could change the general weather of the country and directly affect global warming," Ibrahim said, adding that Iraq's environment had been totally forgotten and could well be the worst in the world today.

Rubbish collections

Meanwhile, the accumulation of household waste is worrying doctors who cite it as a primary source of disease across this nation of 26 million.

"The delay in rubbish collections in sensitive districts throughout Iraq has left many families exposed to rubbish for extended periods of time, and with children playing nearby," Dr Mua'ad Rafid, a paediatrician at Baghdad's Children's Teaching Hospital, said.

"Issues such as diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach problems following the ingestion of contaminated food or water have become very common among children who live near areas where rubbish has been left unattended. As families don't burn their rubbish, dangerous material can contaminate the environment and adversely affect their health," he noted. "Tonnes of rubbish can be found near communities, while that which is collected is inappropriately disposed of on the outskirts of urban areas - and without due protection."

Local authorities in Baghdad say that in many dangerous districts of the city, rubbish is not being collected at all as workers are scared of the violence, having been targeted by militants and insurgents before.

"We are aware of the problem, but given the ongoing sectarian violence taking place in the area, workers are scared to enter some districts. We hope we can soon overcome this problem in Iraq," Khudar Nuridin, media officer at Iraq's Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works in Baghdad, explained.