Iraq’s historic and cultural treasures have been looted, its infrastructure destroyed, and Iraqis continue to face violence, persecution and harassment. Yet one area of damage that has been discussed very little since 2003 is the state of the environment in Iraq and its associated health risks. The location of the biblical Garden of Eden has been ravaged by large-scale pollution, some of which is caused by war, the rest by the lack of government regulations regarding where and how industrial waste is disposed of.
After eucalyptus and palm trees were chopped down for war after war, by Saddam’s government and then the American army, dust storms are now stronger than ever, and more frequent. Without electricity and in 100 F degree weather, Iraqis are unable to take shelter from sand storms even in their homes, where they need to keep windows open because of the heat, inviting the dust and respiratory hazards it causes. Hundreds of people flood emergency rooms which are no longer capable of helping them.
The pollution of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has caused a variety of health problems to people, from skin and kidney diseases to cholera. Sewage and chemical waste dumped in the rivers have also caused diseases among cattle and killed off crops and fish.
Below is a call to activists worldwide to work together to restore Iraq’s destroyed environment. Written by Burhan Almufti, an Iraqi environmental specialist, activist and writer, it was first published on July 3, 2009. It has drawn the attention of Middle Eastern media and environmental activists across the globe. It is translated from the Arabic by Michele Henjum:
To All Those Concerned for the Future of the Earth’s Environment
For some time now the sky has rained fine red dust on the people of Iraq. The particles are so small they enter through the pores on the leaves of the trees and plants remaining in the dry Iraqi fields and kill what was left of the trees in the green belt, which is made up of the coniferous Cedar tree and the Eucalyptus with its delicate flowers. These areas have been destroyed or are being eliminated due to drought and the trees’ inability to photosynthesize after having been covered by a viscous layer of red dust.
The cleanliness and quality of the environment in any spot in the world is a shared human responsibility, not an individual one. The environment of Iraq has seen successive setbacks and consecutive erroneous decisions, from the draining of the marshes in the eighties, the churning up of the desert by tank tracks and heavy machinery in the war and its radioactive uranium dust in 1991, followed by the American invasion in 2003, the destruction of the natural geography of southern Iraq that occurred and continues to occur, and, before all of this, the razing of the Iraqi date palms that covered the coasts of Basra to facilitate radar observation during the days of the Iran-Iraq war. All of these processes have left the environment of Iraq weak and unable to withstand the slightest wind when it comes up quickly, carrying the fine but dense red clay particles long distances from southern to northern Iraq. In this way it kills the trees and plants, pollutes the air, and exposes the life of hundreds of thousands of people to the danger of asthma attacks. The modest capacities of Iraqi hospitals to treat hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma weekly is well known, and I invite you to visit any Iraqi city to see that the sale of protective masks is a common phenomenon in the streets of Iraqi cities. We sell them in intersections instead of selling flowers and roses to sweethearts.
What’s happening in Iraq is a clear sign that the environment has changed and deteriorated to inhuman levels, and that the air quality is at a completely inhuman level. You can confirm this by taking laboratory samples of the atmosphere of cities exposed to the red dust, and analyze its contents in any international laboratory to really know what we breathe in Iraq. We are now sending out a humanitarian call from our cities to you—and since, as I believe, Iraq is among the countries of planet earth and we still share the planet with you, the responsibility is shared, and it is the duty of all of us to work together to put in place practical solutions to save Iraq’s environment from this dangerous deterioration. What adds to the urgency of the matter is that Iraq has been facing an unprecedented drought for the past five years, and the water levels of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have reached their lowest levels on record due to damming projects in countries where the sources of these rivers lie.
Together let’s launch a campaign: “One planet…Shared responsibility.” Let’s organize an international environmental conference in Iraq. Let’s conduct international studies of the environment to measure the level of environmental pollution in the Iraqi atmosphere. Let the National Geographic Society announce a contest as it does annually to assess the success of humanitarian projects concerning man and the environment.
I hope and wish that you answer this sincere call so we can work together for the sake of a clean environment, and so we can leave our future generations with a good memory: that we repaired what others destroyed, and that we were true and faithful to our mother, Planet Earth.