Since 2003, the lifting of the embargo on Iraq has led to the revival of the local market, and the creation of countless private factories, such as brickworks, which operate at low cost and consume a lot of oil. These factories are concentrated in the south of the country, due to the absence of the State and the growing influence of armed militias. The consequences for the environment and the health of the local population are disastrous.

Iraq is home to numerous militias that flourished after 2003, due to the instability that followed the American invasion. The province of Maysan, known for its clanism, is a case in point. The customs perpetuated by clan chiefs enable them to extend their moral and material authority over the entire province, fostering chaos and the spread of corruption at all levels of administration, with complete impunity.

Tribal racketeering

The areas of Maysan province – particularly on its outskirts – are demographically divided according to tribal affiliation. Among the most influential tribes, which enjoy both material and human capital, are Bani Lam, Al-Bahadil, Bani Ka’b, Al-Sa’idi, Al-Zaydawi, Al-Bou Mohamed… Some have succeeded in getting their accomplices elected to the House of Representatives, enabling some of their members to build low-cost, high-production factories in the geographical area where these tribes extend their influence.

Militias linked to these tribes have been investing heavily in construction projects since 2009, according to a national security officer who requested anonymity. He reported that his teams operating in the region were under constant threat. The governorate’s security forces face clan pressure reminiscent of Mafia networks, with racketeering, extortion, or sometimes being ordered – under threat – to change their area of operation. The officer considers that the choice of Interior Minister is the key to this problem, given that the Ministry “has always been controlled by the Badr militia”, which has sponsored the birth of other local militias, drawing on experience acquired since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1981.

The Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia and the Hezbollah Brigades control most of the projects in Maysan province. They have learned from Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen how to set up major economic projects to finance their operations. According to a senior Iraqi intelligence officer, who also wished to remain anonymous, “the volume of exchanges between these militias and foreign companies in oil projects exceeds one billion dollars, according to internal reports. These funds are then used to finance sabotage activities in the region”.

Maysan is the second largest oil-producing province after Basra. The State’s policy of awarding oil licences to boost production has led to increased demand for primary building materials, notably bricks, to develop concessions managed by international companies, with long-term service contracts. The result is an increase in the amount of waste produced by private factories and oil companies. These plants emit smoke laden with carcinogenic compounds that make the air unbreathable.

Devastated villages

Residents of the surrounding villages have been complaining to the local authorities for several years, but to no avail. The village of Oum Chein is one of these affected villages. One of its inhabitants, 38-year-old Bassem Jom’a, has launched numerous appeals on social networks to make his village’s voice heard by the government and to obtain redress. A group of residents from the village of Al-Abija in the Fadak Al-Zahra region have also launched appeals on social networks, warning of the air pollution in their region.

Oum Chein, like other neighbouring villages, has a large number of cancer cases caused by polluting factory emissions. Bassem Jom’a confirms: “Every day, we learn of new cases of cancer due to the smoke emitted by the brick and asphalt factories that poison our region”. Bassem looks at the ground, lets out a sigh, then continues: “We lost my eldest brother after he was diagnosed with cancer. He died at the age of 40”.

Umm Chein is administratively part of the city of Al-Amarah, some 320 km southeast of Baghdad. It is one of the areas with the highest rates of cancer in the province. Around 400 people live in this locality and the surrounding villages. In recent years, 61 have died of cancer. 

Repeated alerts

Air pollution in southern Iraq has not escaped the attention of the relevant officials. Samir Abboud, director of the Environment Department for the province of Maysan, explains: “The standards adopted following the increase in the number of brickworks, asphalt, oxidised bitumen and oil factories have not prevented air pollution affecting public health, either inside or outside the city. The number of brickworks in Maysan has reached a thousand units, yet they have never been subject to any planning whatsoever. These factories encircle the towns, and most are in breach of environmental standards due to their use of black oil.What’s more, the wind blows the smoke into residential areas”.

The negative impacts on the environmental situation began to be felt in 2008. In its September 23, 2011 issue, the Al-Mada newspaper echoed the words of the former head of the Maysan Provincial Council’s health committee, Maitham Al- Fartousi, who warned of an environmental catastrophe if nothing was done: “The second most dangerous pollutant, are the toxic gases and fumes from traditional brickworks”. Warnings were repeated several times over the following years, according to the environmental and health departments of Maysan province.

However, the controls imposed by the province’s Environmental Department do not go beyond traditional methods of reducing air pollution. This government institution has no scientific mechanisms for limiting high levels of pollution. Abboud explains: “The most our legal department can do is impose fines on oil company offenders, but we have no other legal procedure, because the environmental department in Maysan has no scientific tools to measure the air pollution caused by each activity.It is therefore difficult to measure carbon emissions or polluting factors in the ambient air”.

Structural malfunctions

The lack of databases on natural atmospheric components and pollutants has been and remains a major obstacle to scientific research and to solving this problem. We spoke to Dr Saleh Hassan, a specialist in environmental pollution problems at Maysan University’s Faculty of Science, about the scarcity of studies in the field of air pollution, due to the lack of modern equipment, not to mention poor financial resources and lack of state support. Dr Hassan affirms that most of the gases resulting from the combustion of oil and gas cause cancer.

The reason for the lack of a proper database is due to a “structural malfunction” according to one of the former directors of the Basra Province Cancer Center. The former official points out that, since the discovery of oil in Iraq, the authorities have worked to destroy anything that might hinder the extraction of black gold. Successive regimes have enacted a series of laws limiting researchers’ and journalists’ access to information, “as public access to these results would result in the closure of many companies and the payment of considerable compensation, which could extend over generations”, he adds.

Journalists can find themselves subjected to interrogation for revealing information about a government institution. They are sometimes forced to remain silent on important subjects, or are dissuaded from revealing sensitive information by the lack of evidence that the relevant authorities have refused to provide.Nor is there any significant mobilisation on the ground to fill the void left by government institutions.

Organisations operating in Maysan province, volunteers and activists alike confirmed the absence of any NGO or environmental association working on pollution phenomena in the region. Ahmed Saleh Nehma, a documentation specialist and environmental activist, made the same observation, noting more generally that “there are very few environmental organisations in Iraq”.

Repercussions on the ecosystem

Lacking interest from the central government, the Maysan Environmental Directorate sought to collect scientific data on the reality of pollution, in cooperation with Maysan University, in order to diagnose the causes and find realistic solutions. In mid-July 2021, the Faculty of Science thus announced the signing of an agreement with the province’s Environmental Directorate, with a view to cooperation in the field of research on these subjects.

After lengthy investigations, we were able to get our hands on one of the few studies conducted on the issue of environmental pollution in Maysan. In 2013, researcher Houda Adel Al-Battat wrote a scientific paper entitled “Estimation of air pollutants emitted by the brick industry in southern Maysan province”. This research revealed the presence of large quantities of carbon monoxide in the air in the village of Al-Tabar, due to the incomplete combustion of black oil in the brickworks scattered across the region.To this must be added high concentrations of gaseous air pollutants (Co, NOx, So2, H2S), hydrocarbons and harmful organic compounds, well above the averages accepted at global level during the Paris Climate Agreement, to which Iraq was one of the signatories in 2015.

According to Al-Battat’s research, wind movement and speed cause pollutants to disperse and transfer over long distances from their source of emission, and thus expand the pollution zone. These pollutants not only affect atmospheric air, but are also transmitted to crops and domestic animals.These toxic substances also find their way into human organisms through the consumption of these products.As a nutritionist, Dr. Hassan Faisal stated that pollutants that reach the digestive system affect any cell, regardless of its location in the human body, {“to transform it from a healthy cell into a carcinogenic one”}. The article also shows that the soil and plants in the study area contain high concentrations of hydrocarbons, and that the chlorophyll content of plant leaves is affected by increased pollution. 

During her research, Al-Battat was not spared.She was threatened by some brickworks and private business owners, and even received death threats from individuals claiming to belong to the militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Her car was bulldozed and she had to be accompanied on several occasions by one of her brothers in order to complete her search. These incidents have brought to light the use of violence against scientific work, and foster fear among those who would investigate and disseminate the results of their research. The only parameter that can be used to estimate the spread of pollution are the curves in the numbers of cancers and deaths.

The mirage of renewable energy

Air pollution not only affects the population of the province, but also extends to the marshes of Maysan and Eastern Al-Hawizeh, which suffer from “the frequent emission of toxic gases by the gas insulation plants of the Chinese company Petrojana, operating in the Halfaya oil field, in the sub-district of Al-Mousharrah and the district of Al-Kahla”, according to Ahmed Saleh Nehmeh, who adds: “This greatly harms biodiversity and causes the death of many insects that are part of the natural balance of the marshes, which are inscribed on the World Heritage List”. 

A group of residents of Maysan have appealed to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights about the impact of smoke from nearby factories, and the increase in cases of cancer, calling for intervention to put an end to this catastrophic situation, according to a source within the commission who spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

Iraq is one of the signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions, and the government has already contracted with France’s Total to establish sustainable energy and natural gas power plants in the south.However, specialists predict the failure of these projects due to “the lack of infrastructure needed for their installation, and the dependence of foreign companies on local ones to supply certain construction materials, which means a return to square one”, according to an environmental engineer from the Maysan Oil Company, who also spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

Southern Iraq has always been the scene of events that have changed the country’s history, from the British colonisation of 1917, when British forces concentrated their presence in the south because of the resistance they encountered there, to the three Gulf Wars. These forty years of military operations, to which we must add the years of the embargo on Iraq (1990-2003), have caused the complete erosion of all local infrastructures. Instability has led to a depreciation of human life and, with it, of the environment. Our source in Iraqi intelligence confirms this: “All forms of stability, including environmental stability, depend on security stability”.

VIAKhorsheed Doureid, Marcel Rongolf