Chokes The Tigris
By Dahr Jamail
07 June, 2004
The New Standard
- With reconstruction of a highly inadequate water treatment and distribution
system at a near standstill throughout much of Central Iraq, some residents
of Baghdad are left with little choice but to drink highly polluted
water from the Tigris River. Aside from a newly formed Iraqi non-governmental
organization that is focusing on the cleanup of one section of the river,
not much is being done to improve Baghdad residents access to
potable water, and US contractors appear unable or unwilling to help.
While many areas
of Baghdad have access to drinking water from a few of the functional
treatment plants, millions of residents remain without a clean, reliable
source. All too many of these unfortunates turn to the rotten banks
of the Tigris, which snakes prominently through the heart of Baghdad
collecting toxins as it flows.
Abdul Salam Abdulali
works on the river, running a dredging machine. A river man for most
of his life, he has long been employed by a company that dredges the
muddy Tigris, but which was recently incorporated into the Ministry
of Water Resources.
"I am married
to the water," he said standing atop his dredging machine as it
floated atop the river. "But it is too polluted now. I wish I could
eat the fish, but when I cut them open I can smell the oil."
In an alarming development,
Dr. Husni Mohammeds research has additionally concluded that Iraqi
and US military waste during the 2003 invasion deposited oil and benzene
into the Tigris, the effects of which include nervous system damage,
birth defects and cancer.
The residents of the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood called Sadr City
are often forced to drink untreated water directly from the Tigris.
They are also plagued by diarrhea; many reportedly suffer from recurring
Sadr City shopkeeper
Ranzi Amher Aziz joined a chorus of voices protesting the lack of potable
water in this Baghdad slum. "The situation here is worse now than
before the war," he said, echoing others complaints.
Many here say they
cannot see any sign of the US making an effort to help. Aziz stood near
a pool of raw sewage in the street. "There has been no work here
by the Americans to give us clean water or fix the sewage problem,"
Tigris River water
is a concentrated cocktail of pesticides, fertilizers, oil, gasoline
and heavy metals, reports Dr. Husni Mohammed, an Iraqi who holds a PhD
in Environmental and Biological Science and has researched the condition
of the Tigris. Raw sewage mixes with particles from antiquated piping
and US-fired depleted uranium munitions, he says, plus remnants from
untold amounts of other chemicals released by American and Iraqi weaponry
used since the 1991 Gulf War.
In an alarming development,
Dr. Mohammeds research has additionally concluded that Iraqi and
US military waste during the 2003 invasion deposited oil and benzene
into the river.
The health effects
of benzene -- an ingredient found in gasoline and jet fuel -- are well
known and severe. Short-term exposure can cause significant damage to
the nervous system and dramatic suppression of the immune system. Consistent
consumption of benzene-tainted water can cause long-term effects including
cancer (particularly Leukemia), birth defects and damage to the reproductive
Heavy metals in
drinking water are also known to damage the liver, brain and other vital
Adding to the hazards,
very few sewage treatment plants in Baghdad are operational. Raw waste
from the city of five million residents can be pumped through the sewer
system, completely bypassing any treatment, and flow right into the
the widespread suffering of Iraqis. The incidence of diarrheal diseases,
such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera, doubled between August 2002,
before the US-led invasion, and a year later. So reported the Office
for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a UN agency tasked
with coordinating responses to severe humanitarian crises. Seventy percent
of all childrens sicknesses are linked to contaminated water,
the report adds.
Over one year into
the occupation, the situation is not seen by most residents here as
having improved much. Therefore, some have begun to take on the responsibility
and work of enacting changes they do not believe can wait for foreign
authorities or the new interim government to undertake.
Shwaqi Kareem, the
president of the National Association for Defense of Environment and
Children (NADEC), founded the non-governmental organization (NGO) because
he felt it was time to start cleaning up a particularly polluted section
of the Tigris. He hopes to remove the garbage, stop the deluge of raw
sewage that is flowing into the river and establish gardens along the
Kareem said the
Tigris is in worse condition now than before the invasion, and blames
the USs disinterest in taking care of a waterway considered vital
NADEC draws on the
labor of around 1,000 workers, said co-founder Salim Kamel. Some are
paid, but the majority are volunteers. "We get some money from
the municipality," Kamel said, "but some of the volunteers
are business owners who donate money as well."
Kareem is reluctant
to work with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in the cleanup;
he blames the Coalition for allowing companies to dump their garbage
and sewage into the river over the past year.
A contractor interviewed
inside the Coalition-run "Green Zone" area echoed Kareems
sentiments. Awshalim Khammo recently quit his job in frustration after
working to clean up the areas of the CPA near the Tigris. "I tried
all last year to help improve the Palace ground and the river side within
the Green Zone, but things went from bad to worse," he said. Khammo
complained in particular about dumping -- which he referred to as a
"disaster" -- near the Kellogg Brown and Root warehouse and
yards on the east end of the presidential palace.
Bechtel Corporation was awarded a no-bid, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract
on April 17, 2003 worth $680 million. The controversial contract made
Bechtel and its subcontractors responsible for the rehabilitation of
the Sharkh Dijlah water treatment plant in Baghdad, as well as the Kerkh
Waste Water Treatment Plant.
with various authorities in charge of civilian press access to water
treatment projects yielded no invitations to verify progress made on
any Baghdad area water treatment facilities.
The brochure produced
by Bechtel to highlight its work in Iraq concerning the drinking water
situation only gives a concrete finishing date for two projects, one
of which is the rehabilitation and capacity-building of the Sharkh Dijlah
Work on the plant,
Bechtels number two priority in Baghdad since June 2003, is expected
to increase potable water by 225 million liters per day. The work was
due to be completed by this month.
According to the
Washington Post, however, Baghdad officials said Bechtel spent four
months studying plans for the expansion made by Iraqs state-run
water company, finally concluding they were acceptable. They then reissued
the same orders for the same parts from the same supplier Iraqi engineers
had tried to acquire them from. Bechtel estimates it will spend $16
billion on the project, carrying out the work essentially as had previously
been done by Iraqi engineers no longer permitted to participate.
Bechtel admits the
water treatment plant is still being rehabilitated, but says the delay
is caused by extra capacity. "We are expanding the treatment capacity
of the plant by 50 percent over the design capacity, or 50 million gallons
per day," said company spokesperson Francis Canavan. "Our
work is expected to be completed in the fall."
Dr. Abdul Latif
Rashid, the Minister for Water Resources in Iraq, told the BBC that
the poor state of Iraqs infrastructure and past mismanagement
are to blame for some of the water problems Iraqis are now facing.
The UNs OCHA
report spread the blame more broadly: "Three wars and 13 years
of sanctions, as well as the Coalition invasion and the looting that
followed it, have dealt a heavy blow to the countrys already creaking
Treatment Plant -- another Baghdad area plant in Bechtels Implementation
Plan -- is currently undergoing rehabilitation efforts, according to
a company spokesperson, who said, "Last week, the Kerkh Wastewater
Treatment Plant, which we are rehabilitating, began treating sewage
for the first time in years, when one-third of the plant reopened."
During a boat tour
of the Tigris banks taken to inspect treatment facilities, NADEC
founder Shwaqi Kareem pointed to a massive outpouring of brownish gray
wastewater flowing right into the river. The source of this vile discharge?
"The Kerkh Wastewater Treatment Plant," said Kareem.
© 2004 The NewStandard