the reality for Iraq – Byline Times

Angelo Calianno visits the oil city of Basra and the Mesopotamian marshes to see the direct consequences of the production of fossil fuels on the environment and its inhabitants

Today more than ever, the problem of energy production has become crucial. The latest conflict between Russia and Ukraine is redefining the race for gas and oil supplies. But what are the consequences for the people who live where the resources are?

Basra, in southern Iraq, extracts 70% of the country’s crude oil. This province, in keeping with its resources, should be very wealthy and technologically advanced. Instead, it has one of the highest pollution rates in the entire Middle East.

The streets of Basra: Photo: Angelo Calianno

Places like the Nahr Bin Omar refinery are located close to suburbs, where 90% of residents suffer from illness related to breathing in toxic gases or ingesting contaminated water. As large families are the norm here, most of them are children.

To treat childhood tumors and leukaemias, there is only the Basra pediatric hospital which has only 125 beds, which are always full. Hundreds of families come here for daily chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.

Karar, 15, being treated for leukemia at Basra Children’s Hospital. Photo: Angelo Calianno

Oil factories still use the “gas flaring” system, ie they burn the gases resulting from oil extraction in the air by rejecting them into the atmosphere. In 2019 alone, it was estimated that over 100,000 people were hospitalized due to poisoned drinking water.

Despite all this, in Basra, there is no anti-pollution plan or real law for waste recycling. Some private companies take care of the pollution for those who want to recycle independently, but the city’s waste now invades many of the main canals.

The scourge of pollution does not only cause damage in localities close to refineries.

Mesopotamian marshes: Photo: Angelo Calianno

The “swamps”, or swamps of Mesopotamia, are one of the most important examples of biodiversity in the entire Middle East. Today, they could disappear due to pollution, global warming and engineering work from neighboring states.

Now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these canals were already used by the Sumerians. In ancient scriptures, this area was identified as the Garden of Eden.

In 1991, opponents of Saddam took refuge there. Shiite militias who opposed the dictator used these channels and islands to hide and stage attacks against the regime. Saddam Hussein then ordered massive engineering to drain much of the swamps. In some months. the “swamps” are 90% dry and its population drops from 400,000 to 40,000. It was an unprecedented ecological disaster. Saddam then used the barren land to place missile ramps there.

What is the state of the “swamps” today? And that of the inhabitants who live there

Chabaish, a town about an hour from Nasiriyah, is the main departure point for going by canoe to the center of the Marshes. Crossing the canals you will be able to see unique landscapes, herds of buffaloes walking in the water but also many abandoned huts.

Abu Haider and his family. Photo: Angelo Calianno

In one of them, I meet Abu Haider. “I was born and always lived here,” he told me. Before Saddam, we also worked a lot, we fished, but today there are very few fish and our only livelihood is raising bison. In recent years, however, in summer it is so hot that we are forced to move to the land villages, because the marshes become uninhabitable, without water and with very high temperatures.

Jassim al Asad, director of Nature Iraq in Chabaish, an organization that monitors, raises awareness and protects the environment in Iraq, explained what is happening to marshes.

“There are a lot of issues threatening this area and they need to be tackled one at a time.” he said Signing time.“The first is undoubtedly global warming. Temperatures, especially in the last four years, have risen a lot, so much so that in summer, water evaporates. As a result, the remaining water is very salty, which is one of the major killers of buffaloes. A very serious problem is the lack of inflow from the rivers. Neighboring countries, such as Iran, have built dams that block some of the main streams, which is why the drying up is so rapid.

Jasim al-Asad. Photo: Angelo Calianno

Jassim explained that the third factor is pollution. “As you have seen for yourself, the city sewers drain directly into the swamps,” he told me. “In the past these canals were navigable in canoes driven by long oars, today with the introduction of motor boats, not only is there no more pollution but the roar of the engines frightens many species of migratory birds. , another fundamental component of the biodiversity of these places. There are many engineering plans in place, although unfortunately there are not yet the necessary funds. We are hopeful that something might change now that the marshes are also designated a UNESCO heritage site.

Despite the hopes of many, the continued instability of the Iraqi government does not promise the right conditions for long-term environmental plans. The population of the marshes continues to decrease and many young people prefer to try their luck on land rather than continue to live in these places which are becoming more and more inhospitable.

Iraq continues to focus much of its economic efforts on oil extraction, leaving development projects for the environment and health behind. The war in Ukraine has again increased demand for fossil fuels in that region, pushing back a better future for many Iraqis who continue to flee for their health and safety.


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