Access to clean water is an ongoing challenge across the globe. Rapid urbanization and industrialization in many countries have resulted in increasing human impacts on water resources, including the pollution of lakes, rivers, and oceans. In Baghdad, Iraq, water pollution has become a particularly grave issue. The city is located on the banks of the Tigris River, which stretches from the eastern of Turkey, flows through Iraq, and empties into the Persian Gulf. In 2018, it was estimated that over 1,200,000 cubic metres of pollutants were contained within the Tigris River. Baghdad is one of the world’s oldest cities and is of great historical and current significance in the Middle East region . Currently, the population is estimated to be approximately 7.6 million inhabitants, making it the largest city in the country and the second largest city in the Middle East after Cairo, Egypt. Baghdad’s climate is classified as a desert, and features extremely hot summers with temperatures regularly exceeding 45C . Due to the aridity of Baghdad's climate, its inhabitants are dependent on the Tigris river as their main source of water . This means that the river's water quality is of utmost importance to the well-being of the population. Additionally, Baghdad's impact on the Tigris river extends beyond the city limits, as the pollutants flow downstream and affect other areas of Iraq, both rural and urban. The city of Baghdad provides a particularly interesting case through which to examine the problem of water pollution within an urban context, due to the variety of political and economic factors at play. These include legacies of conflict, poor governance, and volatile economic conditions.
This wiki will first discuss water pollution in the global, regional and national contexts. It will then focus specifically on the city of Baghdad and explore the causes and consequences of water pollution as well as the initiatives taken to address this important issue. Lastly, it will elaborate on the lessons which can be drawn from Baghdad's case study and applied to other geographical contexts.
Water pollution: a global issue in the Middle East
Water pollution can be defined as the phenomenon in which chemicals or microorganisms contaminate a water body, such as a stream, river, lake, ocean, or aquifer. Water is a crucial resource for any society as it provides the basis for primary needs such as drinking, bathing, and agriculture. Some 80% of the world’s wastewater, which can contain highly toxic substances, is put back into the environment, often without any treatment. Once contaminated, it is costly, difficult and often impossible to remove the pollutants from the water. Moreover, water pollution impacts the natural ecosystems within cities, as it alters and modifies the habitat and quality of life of indigenous plants and animals.
Cities in the geographical south and east are more vulnerable to water pollution due to their rapid demographic growth as well as their lack of infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plants. The Middle East, due to its particular geographical, geopolitical and economic characteristics is a particularly relevant site at which to examine the issues raised by water pollution. The availability of water resources, crucial to the region's economy, is often compromised by the region's climate. In this region of the world, cities such as Oman (Yemen), Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) or Baghdad (Iraq) lack access to clean water and face related health, economic and social issues. These issues require immediate action at the local, regional and global levels. According to the Water Project Organization, the level of the water table in the Middle East has dropped by about one meter per year for the past thirty years.
The international NGO UNICEF indicated that about 20% of Iraq’s inhabitants and 40% of the country's rural population did not have access to safe drinking water in 2011. Studying access to water in Iraq showcases the extent to which this issue is political. Neighboured by Turkey, Syria and Iran, Iraq's physical geographical situation makes it particularly vulnerable to water troubles. The major rivers flowing through Iraq originate in these countries, and they are thus able to control the country's access to water through damming or other alterations. After two major wars in 1991 and 2003, the water situation had deteriorated. The country was still recovering from these successive violent conflicts when the Islamic State started to further accentuate Iraq's political, economic and environmental problems. The battles started in 2014, raging in cities and in rural areas, and impacted the already fragile water situation in the country. Some terrorist attacks were planned with the aim of deliberately weakening water infrastructure. It resulted in the spreading of toxic substances into the environment, further contaminating Iraq's groundwater.
We decided to focus our case study on Baghdad, as it is considered as one of the cities most affected by water pollution in Iraq, and across the entire region.
Water pollution in Baghdad: causes, consequences and initiatives
Main causes: industrial, agricultural, public and conflict pollution
Water pollution in Baghdad is caused by numerous and diverse factors. First, pollution from the industrial sector represents a serious threat to water quality in Iraq’s capital. It is estimated that about 60% of Iraq’s industrial complexes do not feature proper water treatment facilities for wastewater. Industrial pollution emanates primarily from oil complexes, who discharge their waste into the Tigris river. An oil refinery called the Daura Refinery illustrates the malfunctioning of wastewater management in Iraq’s capital. Only 750 cubic meters of its water is treated per hour, which, according to the Ministry of Oil, is clearly insufficient. The release of untreated water into the river leads to alarmingly high levels of phenolic particles such as nitrogen and sulfur into the water. It also further deteriorates sewage and drainage infrastructure and decreases the amount of oxygen present in the river, which causes great harm to its flora and fauna.
Second, since the 1990s, the agricultural sector has increasingly altered water composition in Iraq. As programs for the draining of soils were implemented under Saddam Hussein presidency, Baghdad’s groundwater’s salinity increased, reaching highly unsafe levels.
Third, the public sector greatly contributes to water pollution in Baghdad. The lack of water treatment infrastructure throughout the city and in public institutions such as health facilities causes great damage to Baghdad’s water quality. According to the Minister of Water Resources in Iraq, about 25% of the capital is not covered by a sewage system. For instance, the complex of hospitals known as Medical City disposes of liquid wastes directly into the river, propagating viral diseases, antibiotics and bacteria in the river and ultimately contaminating the city’s groundwater.
This being said, water pollution in Baghdad goes beyond mere pollution through the agricultural, industrial and public sectors. The several conflicts that the city has faced since the 1980s have weakened its infrastructure, from sewage and water purification systems to power and water supply stations. In addition to collateral damage, the disruption of the country’s water system was also fully part of war tactics. The deliberate disconnection of power stations from water stations, the disruptions in the functioning of water supply complexes, and the release of munitions’ chemicals to pollute Baghdad's groundwater and river are examples of deliberate targeting of the city’s water infrastructure as part of military strategies. According to Peace Insight, ISIS deliberately targeted its attacks on oil and gas refineries in 2014. Water pollution hence became a weapon of environmental warfare.
Main consequences: public health, environmental damage and socio-economic tensions
Such pollution yields serious consequences for Baghdad’s inhabitants. First, in terms of public health, uranium concentration in polluted water has led to numerous long-term and short-term diseases, including cancer, birth defects, cholera, dysentery and typhoid. The Sadr Hospital reported receiving about 400 children per day, ill with these types of diseases. Diarrhea is another prevalent illness caused by the consumption of contaminated water or food, and about 5 people per day die from this disease in Iraq’s capital. The prevention and treating of these diseases in Baghdad is challenging, since only limited health care services are available. Indeed, 12% of Iraq’s hospitals were destroyed by the 2003 conflict.
Second, such levels of pollution in Baghdad’s water generate important risks of long term environmental damage. According to scientific experts, the water quality declined from “excellent” in 1999 to “unsuitable” in 2015. The Diyala River is one of the most polluted in Iraq, and its confluence with the Tigris River leads to the contamination of Baghdad’s waters. Uranium metals and other pollutants contained in water deteriorate soil quality outside the boundaries of the city. This situation is not without consequences for the Iraqi populace, as agricultural products are increasingly contaminated by pollutants. Moreover, the river's pollution alters the soil quality and threatens nuclear research sites. For instance, the Al-twaitha site, located 20 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, contains high levels of pollutants that come directly from the Tigris River.
Finally, the social and political consequences are numerous for Baghdad’s citizens. The deterioration of water quality has led to the rise of unemployment among workers dependent on a healthy river, such as fishermen. Furthermore, conflict around water access has increased social tensions between Baghdad's inhabitants, making it even more difficult to set up an appropriate water management policy. This situation worsened after the 1991 Gulf War, when clean water became increasingly challenging to access for citizens. Lastly, religion also crystallizes social conflicts related to pollution. For instance, water contamination threatens religious rites of Mandean people in Iraq’s capital. Bathing in the river is an important religious ritual for Mandeans, but this practice is threatened by water pollution in the Tigris River.
Initiatives taken to address water pollution at the local, regional and global levels
Several measures have been taken at the local, national, regional and global levels to provide an answer to Baghdad’s poor water quality, focusing on both long and short term consequences of water pollution.
At the local level and national levels, both the Municipality of Baghdad and the Iraqi government are acting to protect Baghdad’s water and restore its quality. The Ministry of Environment was created after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and along with the Ministry of Oil, it is working to reduce the effects of industry, agriculture, public sector and wars on the city's water quality. For example, the Environmental Protection and Improvement Law n°29 enacted in 2009 seeks to mitigate the consequences of water pollution on public health and the environment.
Water pollution, as a pressing issue in the Middle-East, has given rise to several cross-national initiatives. For instance, the organization “Save the Tigris and Iraqi Marshes” gathers civil society representatives from Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria and actively campaigns for the preservation of the river’s water.
Lastly, international cooperation is important in order to provide satisfactory answers to this global issue. In 2018, the Iraqi government and UN Environment collaborated to provide the country with suitable water management infrastructure as well as a policy framework to control the levels of chemicals present in the water. Another example was right after the 2003 war, when the World Bank launched the Emergency Water Supply Sanitation and Urban Reconstruction Project to rebuild infrastructure, especially water infrastructure, in Baghdad and Iraq.
Although initiatives are being taken at several administrative levels to address water pollution in Baghdad, policies need to be infused with more long term thinking in order to better tackle the problem of water pollution. Moreover, more cross level cooperation will be required in order to provide a comprehensive answer to such a global issue.
Lessons Learned from the case of Water Pollution in Baghdad
One of the major lessons to be gleaned from the case of water pollution in Baghdad is the importance of action at multiple scales when addressing environmental issues such as water pollution. Action can be taken at the global, regional, national, and local scales, and through both formal and informal streams. It is also important to note that these scales of action do not exist in isolation and action at the local level can affect change at the national and even global levels. The case of Baghdad showcases the crucial need for partnerships and cooperation between the different scales of action to address urban environmental challenges.
Another lesson learned from the case of water pollution in Baghdad is the need to examine environmental problems as emerging out of multiple interconnected factors rather than from a singular cause. Water pollution in Baghdad provides a prime example of an environmental problem with a multitude of causes, as discussed above. Acknowledging the multiplicity of factors causing water pollution allows for the emergence of an innovative framework of study, crucial to a comprehensive apprehension of environmental issues. This framework must also include an examination of broader trends and processes such as economic systems, conflict, and public management that link the various causes together. In the case of Baghdad for example, we must ask questions such as: how have historical and ongoing conflicts impacted a city's ability to cope with environmental decay? how have political decisions impacted the industrial and agricultural sectors which in turn led to environmental degradation?
Lastly, the case of Baghdad highlights how conflict and environmental damage can be interconnected. This is a link that is not always made, and is relevant to many cities in the geographical south and east that have experienced conflict. Not only do we see that conflict has weakened infrastructure and governance, but we also see the way in which environmental warfare is used to the detriment of the population.
In sum, many lessons can be learnt from examining the case of water pollution in Baghdad, Iraq, and can be applied to other cities in the geographical south, east, and north. These include the importance of action and cooperation at different scales, the need to examine the multiple factors leading to environmental degradation, as well as the broader trends that underlie these factors, particularly conflict.
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