Angelo Calianno visits the oil-producing town of Basra and the Mesopotamian marshlands to witness the direct consequences of fossil fuel production 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 those populations that live where the resources are?
Basra, in southern Iraq, extracts 70% of the nation's crude oil. This province, in line with its resources, should be very rich and technologically advanced. Instead, it has one of the highest rates of pollution in the entire Middle East.
Places like the Nahr Bin Omar refinery are located close to the suburbs, where 90% of the inhabitants have a disease related to the respiration of toxic gases or ingesting contaminated water. As large families are the norm here, most of them are children.
To treat tumours and leukaemia in childhood, there is only the Basra Children's Hospital which has only 125 beds, which are always full. Hundreds of families come here for daily chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.
Oil plants still use the "gas flaring" system, that is, they burn in the air the gases derived from the extraction of oil, putting them into the atmosphere. In 2019 alone, it was estimated that more than 100 thousand people were hospitalized because of poisoned drinking water.
Despite all this, in Basra, there is no anti-pollution plan or a real law for the recycling of waste. Some private companies deal with 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 the places close to the refineries.
The "marshes", or the 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 the engineering works of neighbouring states.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these canals were already sailed by the Sumerians. In ancient scripture, this area was identified as the Garden of Eden.
In 1991, Saddam's opponents took refuge there. The Shiite militias who opposed the dictator used these canals and islands to hide and mount attacks against the regime. Saddam Hussein then ordered massive engineering to drain much of the swamps. In a few months. the "marshes" were drained by 90% and its population dropped from 400,000 to 40,000. It was an unprecedented environmental disaster. Saddam later used the drylands to place missile ramps there.
What is the condition of the "marshes" today? And that of the inhabitants who live there
Chabaish, a town about an hour from Nasiriyah, is the main starting-off point for travelling by canoe to the centre of the Marshes. Crossing the canals you can see unique landscapes, herds of buffaloes walking in the water but also many abandoned huts.
In one of these, I meet Abu Haider. "I was born and have always lived here,” he told me. Before Saddam, we also worked a lot, fishing, but today there are very few fish and our only livelihood comes from raising buffalo. In recent years, however, in summer it is so hot that we are forced to move to the villages on land, because the marshes are becoming unlivable, 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 the marshes.
"There are many problems that threaten this area and they have to be tackled one at a time.” he told Byline Times.“The first is definitely global warming. Temperatures, especially in the last four years, have risen a lot, so much so that in summer, the water evaporates. As a result, the remaining water is very salty, this is one of the main causes of death among the buffalo. A very serious problem is the lack of inflow from rivers. Neighbouring nations, such as Iran, have built dams that block some of the main courses, which is why the drying up is so rapid.”
Jassim explained that the third factor is pollution. “As you have seen for yourself, the city sewers discharge directly into the swamps,” he told me. “Once these canals were navigable in canoes moved by long oars, today with the introduction of motorboats, not only is there more pollution but the roar of the engines scares 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 have high hopes that something can change now that the marshes are also now designated a UNESCO heritage site.”
Despite the hope of many, the Iraqi government's continued instability 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 that are becoming increasingly inhospitable.
Iraq continues to focus many of its economic efforts on oil extraction, thus leaving behind development projects for the environment and health. The war in Ukraine has again increased the demand for fossil fuels in this area, thus putting off a better future for many Iraqis who continue to flee for their health and safety.
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