1708613344 Catastrophic river pollution in Iraq

“Catastrophic” river pollution in Iraq

In drought-stricken Iraq, weakened by decades of conflict that have destroyed its infrastructure, rivers are experiencing “catastrophic” levels of pollution, carrying contaminated sewage and hospital waste, among other things.

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Government institutions and companies are also behind this pollution, officials admit. According to UN statistics, in the country with 43 million inhabitants, practically one in two Iraqis does not have access to a “safe drinking water supply”.

For the oil-rich country, a water-intensive industry, the threat is exacerbated by water shortages. The cause: drought and other climatic unrest, but also geopolitical rivalries over the sharing of water that are pitting Baghdad against its neighbors. However, the lower the level of a river, the higher the concentration of pollutants.

“Catastrophic” river pollution in Iraq


“It is surprising that a large part of the state institutions pollute the water,” says the spokesman for the Ministry of Water Resources, Khaled Chamal, without relieving the burden on the private sector.

He refers to “the sewage network that discharges large amounts of wastewater into rivers without being treated completely or only superficially.” But also “hospitals near the river that dump waste and sewage directly into the river. It’s dangerous and catastrophic.”

The list is long: industrial facilities such as petrochemical factories, but also power plants or agricultural wastewater, “which may contain toxins associated with fertilizers,” said the official.

“Catastrophic” river pollution in Iraq


Mr Chamal assures AFP that from now on the authorities will “no longer approve any project” that could pose a pollution risk if the plans do not include a “treatment station” for water.

“water quality”

“Inadequate infrastructure, limited regulations and low public awareness are the main factors leading to a significant deterioration in water quality in Iraq,” recognizes Ali Ayoub, an expert at Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

So, he told AFP, the two wastewater treatment plants in Baghdad will receive “double capacity” of water they can treat.

“Two-thirds of industrial and domestic wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers” – the equivalent of six million cubic meters per day – he says.

“Catastrophic” river pollution in Iraq


Tragedies are sometimes visible to the naked eye. East of Baghdad, AFP filmed a pipe flowing into the Diyala River, releasing greenish water with a foul smell.

However, Unicef ​​​​assures that “the Iraqi government is committed to improving water quality”.

The organization points to a three-year plan from the ministry that aims to “strengthen the water distribution and sanitation system,” particularly through “quality controls” to ensure “access to clean drinking water, especially for the most vulnerable communities.”

In collaboration with Unicef, Medical City – Baghdad's 3,000-bed state hospital complex – just inaugurated a wastewater treatment plant.

In the first phase, three units were installed, each treating 200 cubic meters of water per day. According to a city official, Aqil Salmane, four more units of 400 cubic meters will be completed “within two months.”

“Catastrophic” river pollution in Iraq


“After treatment, the water can be used to irrigate the gardens of the Cité Médicale and to supply the fire service tanks,” he explains.

In the past, this wastewater was diverted into the sewer system.

“Concentration of pollutants”

The further south we go, the worse the pollution becomes, creating a snowball effect.

“Catastrophic” river pollution in Iraq


“Sewage from other regions is discharged into the river and the water that reaches us is polluted,” confirms Hassan Zouri, a sixty-year-old from Dhi Qar province in the far south. “We need to buy water.”

The phenomenon is exacerbated by decreasing rainfall, but also by the falling levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers when they arrive in Iraq: Baghdad criticizes that the water is being held back by the dams built upstream in the neighboring countries of Turkey and Iran.

“The amount of water arriving on Iraqi territory has decreased, which means the concentration of pollutants is increasing,” says Environment Ministry spokesman Amir Hassoun.

In the past, to dilute heavily polluted water, authorities have been able to open valves and increase the flow. Almost impossible today: reserves have to be saved.

In addition to working to “sensitize” the public in order to “change individual behavior,” authorities are trying to enforce “strict surveillance,” according to Hassoun.

“We require that all hospitals have water treatment systems,” he assures. We hope that 2024 will be “the year in which we eliminate all irregularities” in health facilities.