As soon as the Chinese oil company began extracting oil from the Ahdab oil field in Wasit province, local people began to get strange allergies and develop problems like asthma, skin diseases and conjunctivitis. A local farmer tells NIQASH that although the villages closest to the oil field are the most impacted, problems get particularly bad even further afield when the wind comes from the north.
“Families living in this area have complained many times and they have called upon the government to take action,” says local resident Yahia Naqi. “But nothing has been done to protect them against this slow death. The damage to people's health has been enormous.”
Naqi says that the most affected families tend to be lower income ones. “And now they cannot even sleep on their roofs during summer when the electricity [for air conditioning, in Iraq's summer heat that reaches as high as 50 degrees Centigrade] is cut off because of all the gases emitted,” he complains.
Chinese oil companies have been working in this area for some time. They had signed a contract with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and after 2003, when the Hussein regime was toppled by a US-led invasion, the contract was amended.
And the damage to people's health is not the only problem, adds Majtabi al-Qutbi the head of the municipal council in the Ahrar subdistrict. “Oil companies have also destroyed a lot of local agricultural land,” he told NIQASH.
As a result locals have called upon the authorities to do something about these issues.
“We have held some meetings with officials from the oil field and we were promised that there would be radical solutions, things like the installation of filters for the treatment of pollutants,” explains Naeem Damad, who heads the provincial council's health committee. “But none of those promises have been kept.”
NIQASH collected the concerns of various local interviewees and during an interview with Abbas Hamid, a senior engineer with the oil industry in Wasit, asked about them. “The emissions from the gas and oil fields here are within permissible limits,” Hamid insisted, downplaying the concerns and noting that within a year, some measures – including piping surplus gases away from the area – would have been taken. “They don't cause damage to anyone's health.”
In the meantime locals just have to deal with the effects of oil company pollution here. Local Naqi explains that when the oil companies first started to extract oil and gas here, people were every optimistic: they thought the industry would create jobs and other economic opportunities, so that standards of living would go up. “But the reality has been so different from those expectations,” Naqi concludes. “If the authorities don't somehow stop the Chinese company from polluting everything, many families will continue to suffer serious health problems.”