Iraq’s toxic environment

Salah Nasrawi , Sunday 2 Dec 2018

Once said to be rivers from paradise, the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are now awash with poison, highlighting Iraq’s worsening environmental woes

Euphrates river
An Iraqi man stirs his boat around Dead fish, from nearby farms, floating on the Euphrates river near the town of Sadat al Hindiya, north of the central Iraqi city of Hilla, on November 2, 2018 (Photo: AFP)

Iraqi river fish are well known all over the world, and some of its typical grilled fish are so popular that if you are in Baghdad you should not pass up the chance to try them.

The fish known as masgouf, traditionally cooked on the shores of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, is a seasoned carp cooked next to an open fire.

It originated in the basin of the two rivers and has been around since ancient Babylonian and Assyrian times.

Yet, with an annual production of some 30,000 tons of fish, Iraq’s freshwater fish are now the most endangered group of species in the country, with severe implications for the millions of people who rely on fish for their food and income.

In recent weeks, massive amounts of dead carp have been found floating in the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers or washed up on their banks, triggering fears of the water pollution that sickened thousands of people in southern Iraq over the summer.

The mass death of the fish was first reported in October after villagers north of Baghdad woke up to shocking scenes of piles of dead fish washed up by the Tigris River. A few days later thousands of tons of fish died in the nearby Euphrates River.

Sections of the river about 80 km south of Baghdad were covered with dead fish from nearby farms in the province of Babylon, with authorities using excavators to shovel them out of the water.

The mass death of the species has caused significant losses to fish farms and production in provinces south of Baghdad, while farm owners and fishermen have struggled to find ways to continue to use the resources that the freshwater has to offer.

Iraq’s Health and Environment Ministry has warned the public against buying or eating river fish. The ministry banned the import of the fish into Baghdad, fearing that if infected fish were sold in markets then thousands of citizens could be at risk of disease.

While the reason for the dead fish is yet to be fully explained, the United Nations and state health officials are pointing to pollution as the reason for the deaths.

Laboratory tests conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in neighbouring Jordan have revealed the contamination of water with coliforms and a high concentration of ammonia as being responsible for the death of the freshwater fish.

Coliforms are a broad class of bacteria whose presence in water may indicate the presence of harmful, disease-causing organisms.

The testing also revealed serious issues that warranted the WHO to conduct a second investigation related to probable viral infection among the fish and causing their death in the rivers.

The results of this second test were due this week.

The laboratory investigations came in response to a request to the WHO by the Iraqi government to assess the likely effects of the fish deaths on humans and the environment.

Health experts from the WHO and the Ministry of Health in Iraq are now saying that while the materials found are toxic to fish, they pose no threat to humans.

The WHO said it was continuing to work with ministry experts to develop appropriate preventive measures to effectively mitigate and respond to future incidents of this nature.

However, the death of the fish has highlighted the bigger issue of Iraq’s river water contamination. Water shortages and pollution have been behind the protests that have rocked Iraq’s southern region since July.

Some 90,000 people have been admitted to hospital complaining of diarrhea and other stomach ailments caused by drinking polluted water.

Doctors in the oil-rich Basra province have also been worried that diseases like cholera might spread through the city’s unusable water.

Like many other cities in Iraq, Basra has an advanced sanitary infrastructure that has broken down due largely to mismanagement and a lack of investment, leaving it, like other cities, without effective water-treatment systems.

Iraq’s river contamination, however, reflects wider environmental and pollution problems in Iraq. These problems may be shaving billions of dollars off the Iraqi economy each year in the form of early deaths, disease and lost production.

Iraq’s environment is now horrendous and its pollution level is one of the worst in the world. The country’s environment has been subject to pressures from wars, poor environmental planning, mismanagement, population growth and climate change.

Today, Iraq faces serious environmental challenges, ranging from poor water quality, soil salinity, air pollution, climate change and the deterioration of key ecosystems.

Many of these challenges overlap, as Iraq’s environment is suffering both from degradation due to old problems and shortcomings exacerbated by new ones.

Among the main reasons behind Iraq’s environment-related problems are the wars and civil conflicts that have cumulatively damaged the country’s land, air, water and health infrastructure as well as its agricultural and energy sectors.

The fallout from the US attack in 1991 and its invasion of Iraq in 2003 continues to deform and kill Iraqis long after the conflicts seemingly ended.

Air pollution caused by war may be a major factor in the numbers of birth defects and cancers that have been reported in Iraq over the last three decades.

Researchers have identified exposure to toxic materials from the explosion of munitions and the burning of military waste by the US army as the causes of birth defects and cancers in many parts of Iraq.

Several research works have documented dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukemia in Iraqi cites bombarded by US troops

In one study published in the British Independent newspaper, experts said that the devastating results had exceeded those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

They attributed escalating cancer rates in Iraq since 2003 on the US military’s use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons and have concluded that the remaining traces of DU in Iraq represent a formidable long-term environmental hazard, as they will remain radioactive for many years to come.

Even US government reports have confirmed that tens of thousands of US Iraq war veterans have been diagnosed with respiratory and breathing problems, cancers, neurological diseases, depression and emphysema since returning from Iraq.

The massive death of fish in Iraq’s rivers has underscored that the country’s environmental problems are mounting and burdening its economy, public health systems and political and social stability.

Iraq was also battered with heavy rain this week that swept across the north and south of the country causing flooding and disruption.

The flooding claimed the lives of some two dozen people and caused enormous damage to houses and infrastructure.

Iraq has endured many stretches of stormy weather in recent years, with multiple days of rain and thunderstorms that experts have attributed to climate change.

Given the lack of tangible plans or policies as to how the government will tackle the environmental crisis, Iraq seems to risk facing further devastating pollution that could endanger the health of millions of people.

Without investment and more efforts made in fighting pollution starting with tackling water scarcity, water contamination and rapid desertification, Iraq will continue to have one of the world’s worst environmental records, for which the Iraqi people will pay the price.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq’s toxic environment 

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