[By Wim Zwijnenburg]
First of all, Iraq faces a whole lot of challenges in its recovery from the war and from the sanctions between 1991 and 2003. There are huge problems when it comes to poverty reductions, environmental pollution, healthcare and good governance. The healthcare system is slowly rebuilding, but still needs major investments to be able to handle the huge increase in need for treatment of all types of diseases. Especially breast cancer and lung cancer are on the rise, and because of the economic progress, the diet of people is changing too – but not for the best. Import of uncontrolled food, increase of meat consumption, exposure to toxic materials from the oil industry, lack of proper waste disposal (in some areas because of exposure to depleted uranium) do not contribute to good health. The local and national governments are still in the process of reshaping themselves. Corruption, lack of capacity and internal disputes hinder an effective strategy to combat these challenges.
While talking with journalists and NGOs, both local and international, I feel overwhelmed with these complexities. My mission here is to make an assessment of the problems with depleted uranium, but it becomes clear that it will be difficult to tackle this as a stand alone issue. Furthermore, I can understand why both the government and NGOs working on environment and social and economical development have higher priorities if they have money, time and energy to spend on rebuilding the country.
When I left for Iraq, I didn’t have the impression that it would be an easy job, but it turns out to be more difficult than I anticipated. What strikes me though is that almost everybody has heard about depleted uranium and everybody is able to tell me about people getting sick because of the radiation. People are scared, since they’ve heard about it in the media and see the increase of cancers and other diseases around them without having a clear understanding what might be the cause. But the overall picture remains vague. The doctors I talk to acknowledge that there is an increase of people suffering from cancer, but are not able to link this to exposure to DU and see a likely relationship to the increase of smoking and bad diets, plus the improved reporting and registration mechanisms. From an environmental perspective, the amount of research done is this area is still limited. The government is doing some research and risk education, but is lacking sufficient means and capacity to undertake a thorough analysis on risk factors and work on risk reduction, which makes it hard to identify the causes.
Scrap sites and military dumps
One of the major discrepancies I’ve come across is the differences in perception between civilians and professionals. I was fortunate to meet a local guy with thorough knowledge about contaminated areas because of his profession, and he was able to show me a few places. We made a long trip to the southern part of Basra visiting several scrap sites and military dumps and I was able to access most of the area’s. Hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles were stored inside a fenced location near a steel factory, but still accessible to the people living around it. Children were playing inside the scrap yard, and when talking with guard, he told me that they didn’t get any specific information on the hazards of exposure to
toxics, but that an international agency (he didn’t know the name, most likely the International Atomic Energy Agency) came in, took measurements and told them it was dangerous and “then quickly ran off”. Several people living in the small village suffered from cancer and were very concerned. From other experts I heard that the Iraqi government’s agency who’s responsible for this, took measurement and strongly advised not to use the scrap metal for the steel factory where it is being melted and reprocessed, but upon today, this is still common practice.
No other options
At another location, some contaminated scrap (according to a local scrap collector) was fenced off with barbed wire, but it was done in a poor way: some simple barb wire was put around it, about 50 cm high, but one could simply walk toward it. At the southern outskirts of Al Zubayr tons of military scrap were dumped, and when we arrived there, the local military supervisor said that it was all just removed to the desert two weeks ago, meaning that it has been accessible for years. I witnessed how people were collecting scrap, both adults and children. It’s a main source of income for them, and they consider the risks as part of their job – if they are aware of the risks at all. But when it comes to secure an income, they don’t have many other options.
Not a priority
While talking with the responsible government bodies, they stated that there is not enough funding to do the necessary work resulting in a continuing unnecessary exposure of civilians living in those areas, or the necessary cleaning and remediation work to lessen the risks for those civilians. So far, it has not been a priority as well.
At same time, one could say that people are anxious and continue to relate the increases of health problems with depleted uranium. Though this is difficult to prove from an scientific perspective, it clearly has a psychological impact on these communities, resulting in stress and even in the exclusion of sick people from their communities: it is sometimes thought that cancer or other health problems are contagious because of radiation.
There is so much more to tell about what I’ve come across, experiences which I plan to include in IKV Pax Christi’s Iraq report on depleted uranium. But one thing is clear: both the Iraqi government and the international community need to take action in the affected areas. In the line of suggestions to be made, priority should be given to building on a previous project that identifies hotspots on contamination, work on decontamination and safe storage of military scrap, soil assessment and work on risk education for the local population. All of this is only possible if the users of depleted uranium provide the necessary information regarding the amount of the material used and locations of where it has been fired. Clearly, when a state is recovering from armed conflict, this burden should not be put on the shoulders of the state alone – they have bigger priorities to work on.