Polluted Shat al-Arab threatens life, could spread diseases

High rates of contamination in Iraq's Shat al-Arab river, formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris in the southern province of Basra, threaten life and could spread disease, a specialist told IRIN on 24 September.

“The Shat al-Arab is facing a very dangerous state of contamination, with sewage being discharged directly into the Euphrates and Tigris, and industrial waste, oil products and the remnants of munitions from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war [having been dumped in the river]," said Malik Hassan, director of the Seas Sciences Centre affiliated to the University of Basra.

The absence of dredging operations, Hassan said, had allowed these materials to become poisonous: "The corrosion of munitions and the interaction of industrial and microbial pollution from hospital waste, are producing poisons which can be active for decades and get into peoples’ bodies."

"All this could increase cancer among the people who live nearby and who depend on the river for their sustenance. It could also lead to an increase in waterborne diseases such as cholera," Hassan said.

The southern stretch of the river - some 200km in length - constitutes the border between Iraq and Iran down to the mouth of the river as it discharges into the Gulf.

''All this could increase cancer among the people who live nearby and who depend on the river for their sustenance. It could also lead to an increase in waterborne diseases such as cholera.''

"Now only 20 percent of the palm and other trees remain as most have been damaged by these waste materials. We have also seen a 90 percent reduction in the number of `Subor’, a famed fish, and a 70 percent decrease in the number of `Buni’ [barbel] fish," he said.

"It is a tragic situation and needs a huge effort to contain. The government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should start immediate and urgent measures to combat this situation… it will do more harm than wars," Hassan said.

Some of the pollution is directly attributable to political violence.

Oil slick threatens water supplies

On 18 September unidentified gunmen planted a bomb under an oil pipeline near the northern city of Beiji on 18 September, causing a fire and huge quantities of crude oil to spill into the River Tigris.

An Iraqi police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said the bomb went off before dawn, making it difficult for firefighters to extinguish the blaze.

Beiji is about 250km north of Baghdad and home to Iraq's largest oil refinery.

Later in the day, the spill reached the central city of Tikrit, over 100km to the south, the official said. The oil spill led to the closing of water treatment stations in both Tikrit and Beiji.

In Baghdad, a municipal official on 20 September urged residents to conserve water and fill up their tanks in case water treatment stations had to be shut down because of the spill.

"We call upon people to store and be economical in their use of drinking water in anticipation of the worst, which is the arrival of the oil at water treatment stations in Baghdad," said Naim al-Qaabi, deputy head of the Baghdad municipal administration.

Al-Qaabi said rubber barriers had been placed around water purification plants in and around the capital. He said, however, that the barriers may not be sufficient and that the plants might have to be shut down.

In the meantime, he said, water towers around the city were being filled to capacity to store as much water as possible before the slick reaches the capital.

sm/ar/cb