Iraq: The State of the Postwar Environment

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
April 18, 2003

As the focus in Iraq begins to shift from fighting to rebuilding, international groups are calling for environmental fixes to be part of the overall plan.

"When a country needs a great deal of reconstruction, it's very important to include environmental issues in the strategic planning," said Michael Williams, an information officer with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) based in Amman.

The post-war environmental issues in a country like Iraq have very little to do with conservation and the protection of threatened plant and animal species, and everything to do with rebuilding infrastructure and environmental cleanup.

"The things you fix first are those that address basic health needs, and that means getting the water and electrical systems working," said Henry Lee, director of the Kennedy School's Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard University. "Bombing tends to allow water and sewage systems to get mixed together, and people are going to get very sick. You also need the electrical system to operate irrigation systems so you can feed people, which is especially important in Iraq where you have had the government feeding people."

Beyond the immediate needs of food and water, Iraq faces a multitude of long term issues, arising from both direct damage from the war and years of neglect. Establishing environmental management systems to deal with hazardous waste, water and sewage treatment, ground contamination, and air pollution has none of the glamour of saving exotic animals from extinction. But the nitty-gritty work of writing regulations, establishing monitoring regimens, training personnel, and developing enforcement procedures are the likely focus of environmental efforts in the coming years.

Legacy of Aerial and Naval Bombardment

Large scale aerial and naval bombardment targeting urban infrastructure, weapons facilities, and petrochemical, industrial, and chemical storage plants escalate the long-term environmental consequences of war significantly.

"Hazardous waste disposal is difficult any time," said Williams. "When factories that produce toxic waste—fertilizers, wood pulp, paper, pharmaceuticals; there are any number of examples—are destroyed by bombing or shelling, the problems are even greater."

According to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, some 26 toxic chemicals are reported to be manufactured or stored in the region, including substances such as benzene, phenol, and sulfuric acid. The toxic chemicals, and, in the case of weapons facilities, radioactive material, released into the environment can seep into the ground contaminating ground water. When the facilities are bombed, the resulting fires can cause the chemicals to be vaporized. The resulting air pollution from smoke, dust, and debris will eventually return to the ground in the form of acid rain, increased soot fallout, and chemical contamination.

Depending on the scale of contamination, the effects on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the Mesopotamian marshes, farmlands, and aquatic ecosystems in southern Iraq could be severe, affecting weather systems, solar radiation, and food chains.

Even in the desert waste is a problem. The amount of human waste, garbage, and toxic materials generated by thousands of coalition troops as they crossed the desert, setting up fuel and supply depots, is enormous. The only way to get rid of it is by burying it in pits, creating a real need for continued long term monitoring to assess the possibility of ground water contamination.

"Continuous monitoring of both ground and surface water for signs of contamination will need to be an essential aspect of any reconstruction plan," said Williams.

Continued on Next Page >>




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