Iraq: The State of the Postwar Environment

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Iraqi public health workers are particularly concerned about the use of armaments that incorporate depleted uranium. When a shell hits a tank—both of which could contain DU—a fiery hole is burned through the armor and DU, which is slightly radioactive, is oxidized and released into the environment.

The U.S. military has studied the health effects of DU extensively, and maintains that there are no serious long term health consequences. Iraqi health care workers disagree.

"Iraqi doctors believe childhood cancer rates and birth defects have increased dramatically since 1991, and attribute it to depleted uranium," said Michael McCally, a professor of public health and preventive medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. "I'm not convinced they can draw that conclusion. But when we were there in January, every public health worker we spoke with brought it up and believes it."

Land Mines and Refugees

The region in the north separating Kurdish Iraq from Baghdad-controlled Iraq, and the borders with Iran and Kuwait are all heavily seeded with land mines and unexploded ordnance as a consequence of the Gulf War, the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War, and two decades of internal conflict. The Mine Advisory Group (MAG), the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in 1997, estimates that there are between 8 to 12 million landmines and an unspecified number of unexploded mortars, shells, grenades and other deadly war debris in the country. The organization has removed more than 91,000 mines and almost 346,000 unexploded ordnance in northern Iraq since it began working there in 1992.

Although not much is known about land mines in south and central Iraq, a survey conducted in 2001 by the International Committee of the Red Cross identified cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance as significant threats to the populations of those regions.

These numbers will increase as the result of the current conflict.

"The country is littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance of all sizes and types, and will, predictably, kill and injure children and wildlife for years to come," said McCally. Farmers and domestic livestock are also frequent victims.

In addition to the threat to local communities, a confidential UN document issued in December 2002 warned that the minefields would constitute "a formidable hazard to refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons)."

Land mines and refugee and IDP populations may be seen by some as humanitarian issues, but both can heavily impact the environment.

Jennifer Leaning, a professor of international health at Harvard University, in an analysis of war's impact on the environment, points out that land mines accelerate environmental damage indirectly by forcing people to move from fertile areas to marginal lands that are environmentally fragile, and an inevitable loss of biodiversity. The land mines impact the environment directly when the explosions disrupt essential soil and water processes.

Studies in Mozambique, Sudan, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas show that refugee camps are associated with deforestation, encroachment on vulnerable ecosystems and protected areas, water pollution, sanitation degradation, air pollution, and loss of endangered species.

Cleaning Up after War

Obstacles to the clean up are enormous. Funding for environment activities has been included in the United Nation's (US)$2.2 billion Flash Appeal for emergency assistance funds it estimates will be needed for the next six months. But international aid agencies are already pressed for funds. A dozen countries are clamoring for reparations for past damages to the tune of (US)$79 billion. Thus far the United Nations has awarded $1.9 billion.

The dearth of educated and well-trained personnel will present problems. As will the lack of perception of the environment as a priority.

"In all the years I've been consulting in the Middle East, I can't recall the environment ever being on the agenda," said Lee. "It's not held to be as much of a priority. If you mention it, they say 'Oh yes, the environment, we care,' but that's about as far as it goes. The only issue they do talk about is climate change, which they consider a western conspiracy to deprive them of income."

More Iraq Stories from National Geographic News
National Geographic News: Iraq
Humanitarian Crisis Looming for Iraq, Aid Workers Warn
National Geographic TV Reporter Embedded in Iraq
Dogs of War: Inside the U.S. Military's Canine Corps
Iraq Conflict: Following the "Laws of War"?
Dolphins Deployed as Undersea Agents in Iraq
Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq
Iraq War Threatens Ancient Treasures
Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"
Iraq Expert Predicts "Problems of Control"

More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

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