By Jake Hussona
Iraq lies in the Fertile Crescent that stretches in an arc from Mesopotamia in the East to Egypt in the West, and is known by many as being 'the cradle of civilisation'. Here, several millennia ago, humans took their first steps in seed cultivation and the first farming techniques were developed, making Iraq the birthplace of agriculture. Nourished by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this land was able to produce a bountiful harvest of grains, pulses, dates and vegetables.
Today, however, the land does not reflect its rich past. Instead, plagued by war, Iraq's agriculture and its natural environment have been severely damaged. Since 1980, there has been continuous use of damaging military techniques and devastating weapons that cause harm indiscriminately and degrade the environment entirely.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) led to extensive laying of landmines along Iraq's eastern border. Places such as al-Faw and Basra in southern Iraq, and the cities along the border such as Mandali and Badra, and many others, were littered with mines. Today, the number of mines contaminating Iraq is estimated at 25 million. The process of clearing them is lengthy and the cost high ($350 per mine) -- so much so that Iraqi farmers have, for many years, been forced to live in constant risk and danger. The Mine Advisory Group has been operating there since 1992, seeking to prevent the damage mines pose to grazing animals and farmers. The known mine/ERW casualties in the country by the end of 2017 totaled some 38,867.
Mines have played a lasting role in ensuring that the harmful legacies of these conflicts are still felt. It was reported, for instance, how Azima lost her leg tending her family's walnut farm in rural northern Iraq along the Iranian border.
More recent conflicts have seen this harm amplified. The family of Abu Bashir returned home after being displaced by ISIS: "We came back in March 2018 and found the area booby-trapped. There was nowhere we could feel safe... As the kids were playing, a bomb exploded under my six-year-old son who was outside the house. He was killed immediately." A year later, in 2019, unexploded ordnance also killed Abu Bashir's 18-year-old son.
The Gulf War (1991) witnessed other devastating weapons impacting the country. In this case many came from the air. The U.S. coalition bombed critical infrastructure such as water-treatment facilities, food-processing plants, food-and seed-storage warehouses and flourmills. Crippling sanctions prevented the rebuilding of these structures, and any funding towards replenishing Iraq's food supply. This led to widespread malnutrition and starvation.
14 years later, in 2003, the U.S. swept into Iraq with "shock and awe", killing thousands, and many innocent lives were caught up in the violence. "The battle for Baghdad" alone cost the lives of at least 1,255 Iraqi civilians. Elsewhere in the country, in places such as Basra, Najaf and Nasiriyah, the death toll ran into the hundreds. Large operations by U.S. coalition forces continued until 2011, accounting for 15,143 civilians deaths. In total, persisting violence fueled by militia groups, terror factions and armed forces has caused the deaths of around 100,000 Iraqis.
It is estimated that during the Gulf wars in 1991 and 2003, the U.S. targeted Iraq with about 1,200 tons of ammunition. The amount of explosive weaponry used by non-state actors is unknown but likely equals or exceeds this. As well as taking lives, such levels of weaponry use has had severe long-term impact on the environment. The shells, munitions, and cluster bombs left behind after the war were counted in millions.
Such contamination has led to soil pollution which, in turn, has exacerbated lower agricultural production and contamination of produce. In particular, radioactive material from depleted uranium left by munitions has contaminated the soil and water causing an exponential growth in birth defects. In Basra's maternity ward, rates of congenital birth defects increased 17-fold between the years 1994-2003. Cancer rates have also grown rapidly, as the overall incidence of breast and lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma have doubled.
Evidence indicates that depleted uranium was used by the U.S. and U.K. during 1991 and 2003 in more than 1,100 locations, including densely populated areas. The absence of transparency over its use, inadequate remediation efforts and awareness-raising measures is a cause for concern.
With the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2011, contaminating military intervention in Iraq accelerated. Throughout the conflict, water management infrastructure was weaponised and, as ISIS controlled structures along the Euphrates, widespread damage occurred. In 2014, ISIS used the Fallujah Barrage to stymie an Iraqi army advance with floodwaters. In 2016, they blew it up, causing around 12,000 families to evacuate. In the long-term, farmers in Baghdad's western agricultural belt went without water for over two years.
An initial assessment by the Ministry of Water Resources estimated that the cost of damage to hydraulic infrastructure stood at some USD 600 million. Total losses, including from serious disruption to annual agricultural seasons, are likely to be significantly higher.
Agriculture was further stifled by ISIS's "scorched-earth tactics". They devastated many rural communities by sabotaging irrigation wells, burning down orchards, laying landmines and destroying agricultural equipment and structures. They mined vast swathes of 'high-use land' to protect their positions. In addition, IEDs were used as part of their defensive lines in multiple fields.
They also set fire to as much as possible, whether to trees, oil-rigs, oil wells or other structures. This was to provide cover from aerial bombardment, delay Iraqi forces, degrade valuable resources, and to terrorise communities. Before retreating, they booby-trapped everything, from barns to heavily trafficked escape routes, and pump stations.
The conflicts in Iraq have been dominated by control over oil infrastructure. As a result, oil structures have often been targeted through the years, causing oil spills and fires. Oil spills from damaged wells, refineries, trucks, tanks and pipelines not only harm the soil immediately surrounding the spill, but also pollute ground and surface water, subsequently threatening drinking water sources and agricultural land.
This exposes people and livestock to harmful chemicals found in crude oil, such as BTEX and PAHs. They can cause liver and kidney problems, respiratory disease, and cancer. As the oil from spills dries out, it also releases a range of hazardous Volatile Organic Compounds into the air.
In 2014, a pipeline near the Tigris was bombed, which resulted in a 70km long oil slick. Cities such as Baghdad had to close off their water supply from the Tigris until the slick had passed. The same year, ISIS attacked pipelines near the Baiji oil refinery, south of Mosul. Oil from Baiji flowed over agricultural lands in the region.
Bombing of oil infrastructure also causes oil fires that release multiple harmful substances into the air such as Sulphur-dioxide. This can lead to acid rain that harms vegetation and acidifies soil.
The battle around Qayyarah oil fields, for instance, witnessed particularly severe damage as ISIS set fire to the oil wells in 2016. These fires burned for a whole year because there were limited resources to deal them and booby traps made access difficult. They also flooded the streets of Qayyarah.
The relationship between war and oil also adds to environmental harm. Oil supplies and the demand for control for such can both fuel war as the precious commodity is often fought over. But war also produces its own carbon footprint. In 2017 alone, the U.S. military bought 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted more than 25,000 kilo-tonnes of carbon dioxide by burning them. This made the US forces alone greater polluter than 140 other countries.
This hugely contributes to climate change, a process that is causing increasing drought and desertification of fertile land in Iraq.
As well as the increasing pressure to feed its population, growing at an annual rate of more than 2.8 percent, Iraq will need much more than the current USD 5 billion to import basic food to meet their annual shortages.
Ultimately, countries involved in the so-called "War on Terror" should review their military techniques to consider long-term environmental damage. This should include reviews on weapon and munition developments and targeting policies with environmental impact in mind. They should also provide greater transparency over targeting procedures and strikes and the use of harmful substances like depleted uranium .
In the end, it should be the responsibility of countries involved in conflict in Iraq to assist in the de-mining process and in Iraq's agricultural development, so that it can become the fertile-crescent that it once was.