P21 iraq

David Wells explains Iraq’s battle to recover from conflict and severe environmental damage.

Iraq has had a turbulent recent history and is characterised by social and political instability. This was not always the case; in the 1960s and 70s, increased oil revenues, strong economic growth and social reforms gave Iraq significant economic power. But during the past four decades, the country has suffered a severe breakdown in social, political and infrastructure dynamics, and now faces major environmental and socio-economic issues.

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Gulf War (1990-1991), 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent occupation of large swathes of Iraq by Islamic State (IS) have resulted in infrastructure damage, environmental degradation, looting and pillaging of equipment and supplies (including hazardous and radioactive materials) and acts of sabotage.

Furthermore, the financial and trade embargo imposed by the United Nations following Iraq’s 1990 Kuwait invasion severely curbed funds for maintenance, waste management and environmental remediation. Many skilled engineers fled the country, which resulted in a lack of expertise in pollution prevention techniques and best practice and an absence of effective regulatory controls.

The huge Iraqi oil industry was starved of investment, skills and technology, leading to chronic environmental problems, such as discharges of untreated effluent to surface waters, spillages and discharges of chemicals to soils and groundwater, widespread uncontrolled emissions and poor waste management.

Many of Iraq’s water resources originate outside its borders, and strained relations with those countries mean they are continually diverted or inhibited. As a result, Iraq has major water security challenges, although this is not a new crisis, thanks to decades of ineffective management of water resources.

Iraq’s political stalemate, population growth, failure to plan and coordinate water issues with neighbours, as well as climate change, drought and wasteful irrigation, have all added to stresses on water security. With depleted aquifers and limited rainfall, Iraq’s dependence on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has increased its vulnerability to water scarcity.

Quality is as much a problem as quantity, with few suitable wastewater treatment facilities. Fertilisers and pesticides leach into surface watercourses along with untreated domestic, hospital and industrial effluents. Salinisation of both soils and surface water resources from recirculation of agricultural drainage is also causing problems.

Iraq also has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, with a growth rate of 2.5%, and 40% of the population are under 15 years old. This puts extreme pressure on inadequate utilities. With few waste management facilities, much is buried, burnt or simply dumped, resulting in uncontrolled waste deposits.

The combined effect of environmental and social pressures leaves Iraq with a colossal task of remediation. In the eight years since Earth & Marine Environmental Consultants started working there, faltering progress has been observed. However, the decline in oil prices and upheaval caused by IS has taken the momentum out of these small gains.

There is much work to be done, with increasing urgency. It is not a place for the faint-hearted. UK firms are playing a key role in this effort, requiring a huge range of complimentary disciplines.

David Wells is technical director, Iraq projects, at Earth and Marine Environmental Consultants