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Environmental Crisis in Iraq


Iraq is facing acute environmental crisis that is primarily attributed to problems and issues that relate to historical background, humanitarian issues, bad governance and politics. For decades, Iraq has been under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein who has most contributed the war torn state of the country. This war propagated the use of weapons that consequently led to the destruction of the environment. With the United States troops that were deployed during the Gulf War and the controversies that surrounded the motive behind U.S entry into that country, led to Iraq spilling and setting oil wells aflame in the accusation of the American government having intentions for their oil, that consequently led to adverse environmental pollution from the pungent fumes and dark smoke which affected both human, flora and fauna in horrible ecological damage. The aim of this study is to evaluate the environmental crisis that faces Iraq, with causes and consequences and the probable measures and role the current government and the global community can use to step in and reverse or reduce the worsening ecological impacts the country is ailing from.

 The war in Iraq

The war torn country of Iraq has been experiencing constant wars primarily as a result of their prospective oil wells in which countries like the United States and the United Kingdom oil marketers have been eyeing. This war conflicts have brought upon Iraq adverse ecological effects causing exponential and horrific toll in the water systems, the environment and human life. The entry of troops that were sent by the Bush Administration and the congressional allied with the aim of toppling Saddam’s regime further contributed to acts and crimes against humanity and nature consequently worsening the living conditions of the Iraqi citizens. The Gulf War of the early 1990s in which British and U.S planes bombed Iraq, the missiles that were left behind proved to be more deadly as they left insidious tons of bullets, shell casings, bomb fragments which had traces of depleted uranium greatly affected the lives of Iraqis causing complicated health problems attributed to the radioactive missiles and bombs (Abdi, 1991). These radioactive materials drained into the soil and consequently into the river and water systems culminating to the destruction of Iraqi’s ecological system.

 Moreover, the Iraq-Iran war propagated in the 1980s also contributed to the severe damage of the environment and consequent mismanagement of the ecological factors by former Iraq regime. In Bush’s architect of Iraq invasion, led to loyalists to Saddam spilling oil and lighting up oil fields in their hope to expose the U.S attack underlying motives (Simpson, 2002). The potential of U.S troops entering Baghdad caused ripple effects with observed hostilities in Kuwait where barrels of oil were spilt and oil fields set ablaze that caused dark billowing flames and pungent fumes spreading over many miles causing havoc and destruction of the environmental system. The United States is also held liable for the great environmental devastation following the first Gulf War where it drowned an estimated eighty crude oil ships in the Persian Gulf in upholding the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. The crude oil formed a slick which led to the death of unknown aquatic life including sea birds which were feeding on the dead fish. It simultaneously wrecked havoc on the tourist and the local fishing communities.

 Environmental crisis in Iraq

After more than a decade in constant wars in Iraq, the consequences of health related focus has come into focus as a result of the radioactive bombing which have become dire. Health issues affecting the Iraqi citizens form radioactive material, has been observed in rise of leukemia which has been termed “the white death” by Iraqi physicians. The communities also suffer from other respiratory illnesses like lung cancer and general health conditions (Connette, 2003). These situations were compounded by the sadistic and forced isolations from the former regimes in Iraq that consequently caused a humanitarian crisis as most of the people suffering from these ailments could not be detected and efficiently treated. This made the prevention of cancers and other health related problems to be more difficult.

 Civilians have suffered the most in the dire environmental problems attributed to constant unrest and wars especially in health matters. The elements of depleted uranium and traces of fissionable materials from nuclear weapons and reactors, has been a nuisance waste which the Iraqi government is grappling with. Moreover, the uranium that oxidizes into the atmosphere mixing in dust and dessert winds causes havoc when inhaled, when it sticks to lung fibers and eventually causing body harm exhibited through hemorrhages, tumors, leukemia and a ravaged immune system. Depleted uranium has a half life that exceeds four billion years which means the hard fact that the lands in Kuwait, the Balkans and southern Iraq are forever contaminated.

 The humanitarian crisis that hit the country in 1990 with proliferation of black markets coupled with human rights violations which went unreported or unknown played a big hand in the crisis the war torn country has been experiencing. Many conflicts were generated during these wars as they propagated violations of human rights and are still evident even today. Dictatorship in the regime of Saddam Hussein further worsened Iraq conflicts which translated to environmental pollution and consequent mismanagement. Iraq’s oil wells have always been the center for the country’s conflicts and especially the ‘Ramesh’ oil reserve field which is rated the second largest in the world (Attiga, 1998). Disputes in managing this source of wealth compounded by U.S and U.K oil marker’s interests for Iraqi oil, has brought more damage with ethnic and international conflicts in which the major loser is the environment. Sanctions that were imposed by the United Nations in Iraq saw some of the worst acts of environmental and marine degradation with oil used as a tool to fuel the war.  

 Picking up the pieces

The overt pollution crisis at the current moment has caused much awareness of the pathetic state of Iraqi’s environmental framework significantly caused by the weapons of mass destruction that were used in Iraq’s previous wars. The crisis is alarming requiring the urgent attention from the Iraq government and the United Nations. Majority of the health problems in Iraq is due to inhaling dangerous chemicals caused by oxidation of depleted uranium causing diseases like leukemia and lung cancer. The effects of uranium have not only affected humans, but vegetation and animals as well. Consequently, the chemicals find their way into water systems and contaminate water organisms resulting into death of aquatic life and the water itself which is essential. Environmental degradation effects and destruction of water catchments areas especially the rivers Euphrates and Tigris which the country relies on in watering the vast plains and marshes downstream, have suffered a major blow with dam projects being erected in neighboring states (Bulloch, 1993). This has led to drastic reduction of the flow river Euphrates and Tigris turning the once fertile plains in the country into a desert further deepening the environmental crisis.

 With bombs continuing to tear down villages and towns, environmental experts and officials are pointing the adverse effects that need to be addressed quickly in what is now termed ‘war of water’. The previously lush plains that were located in south of Baghdad have dried up, cracked and lay barren and consequently worsening dust storms. If the threats and symptoms of water shortage are addressed with radical solutions, could lead to a disaster of the humanitarian crisis (Frank, 2007). Low water levels in lakes and rivers have spelt disaster for water sewage systems and simultaneous poisoning of water rendering it unfit for human and animal consumption. The ripple effects from the environmental crisis which is worsening in Iraq, has caused a sharp increase in child mortality and increased prevalence of poverty because of the lack for food. Degradation in environment is more pronounced in water issues and their respective sources as it is used to generate electricity in the country.

 The supply of electricity has been consequently curtailed as most of the power stations have been closed as a result of lack of water. Water supply from Euphrates and Tigris has dramatically dwindled with the rivers being starved thereby affecting Iraq’s old fertile agricultural heartlands and the underground water supplies that have depleted with no signs of recovery. Consequently, drought has become a national issue where the country cannot support and provide for its citizens compounded by the political mess that still challenges the country’s government as a result of controlling and managing the oil reserves.

 Addressing the crisis

The environmental crisis in Iraq is dire continuously resulting to the high mortality rates observed in the country. Iraq’s crisis is aggravated by the war damaged electrical and sanitation systems that continues to worsen the current living conditions and situations in the country. The environmental crisis has posed considerable threat to health of Iraqi citizens with mortality rates rising sharply (Laban, 1991). A publication posted by United Nations in early 2003, indicates that the country is facing considerable challenge in reconstructing and improving the sanitary, sewage and electrical systems. The observers have indicated that the war has exponentially elevated the health risks and environmental concerns in this country which requires urgent measures to mitigate the problem. United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has also raised the alarm in addressing the post conflict risks in Iraq concerning human health and the environment framework. Immediate measures have to be developed in order to offer effective solutions and frameworks for Iraq.

 The UN program has leveled the crisis in which environmental protection concerns all stakeholders as a humanitarian issue that need to be mitigated because apart from environmental hazards that affect human life and other life forms, it also impedes aid operations in the war ravaged country. The priority of the country should list restoration of sanitation systems, water supply, cleaning waste sites, and also cleaning pollution hot spots as the number one strategy to curtail the worsening environmental crisis in order to reduce disease epidemic risks because of accumulated medical and municipal wastes. Moreover, blame should not be attached for the numerous environmental problems, but the Iraq government with support from humanitarian organizations should identify and use strategy approaches that will safeguard the environment from further deterioration (Jeffrey, 2008). The environmental crisis should be assessed as soon as possible to mitigate the immediate environmental consequences with an urgent cleanup plan. Iraq must integrate the environment in its reconstruction plans in order to achieve strong, full and sustainable recovery. Priorities in the environmental recovery should be associated with easing the stress factors upon power, restoration of water, ensuring food security and proper sanitation networks.

 The accumulated damage to sanitation and water systems has been the cause for the high pollution levels and consequent health risks. Electricity cuts the country has been experiencing because of the closed and stopped power stations have affected the pumps used to remove sewage and enable the distribution of freshwater to Iraq citizens. Flood plains and irrigation lands in southern Iraq have not been spared either as pumps used to remove saline water have been often stopped because of power cuts thus rendering these fields contaminated with salt and waterlogged simultaneously affecting agriculture. Therefore, the power supply should also be prioritized in order to help with the cleanup programs and initiatives (Seymour, 2003). The UN environmental program has also sensitized for the assessment of sites or infrastructures that have been struck with weapons that contained depleted uranium (DU) which contributes to environmental contamination as a result of radioactive uranium. Exhaustive use of tanks with DU weapons have led to yet unknown consequences and levels in the ecological system, in which the government as foreign aid can step in to help the general public and military personnel from the risk of DU accidental exposure.

 The earlier and current conflicts in Iraq have contributed to the environmental stresses which have turned chronic resulting in widespread and large quantities of military debris some of which are unexploded ordnance that can cause further harm. The heavy metals that were released during Iraq’s various conflicts in destruction of industrial and military infrastructure, has caused hazardous effects in the soil, fresh water supplies and air.


The environmental degradation in Iraq is at an all time high and further worsening with the lack of proper management of resources. The country has been the center for major conflicts and wars especially the Gulf War and the Iran-Iraq war that saw the use of radioactive weapons which emitted depleted uranium into the atmosphere consequently affecting the environment and people’s health. The U.S has been accused in meddling in Iraq wars and certainly plays a major part the countries diverse ailments that point a finger to the former Bush’s administration. Rise in mortality rates and health problems like leukemia and lung cancer have, been the by products of the wars. The country’s electrical system, sanitation, fresh water supply and sewerage disposal have been greatly affected through severe environmental degradation and increased poverty levels. Consequently, the international organizations and the Iraq government call for a strategic approach that will aid in building a knowledge base that would tackle the chronic environmental problems, build capacities that will monitor environmental management in the long term and build strong national institutions that will foster regeneration and conservation of environment.


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