In the district of Islah, in Iraq's Dhi Qar province, tall chimneys belch out black, sooty smoke. Underneath them, locals move around as if they are traveling in trenches, between caves. The smoke blocks out the sun. The chimneys belong to local brick factories – there are around 40 in this area - and are well known for burning what locals call “black oil” - any kind of unrefined petroleum product that can be burned in an oven - to fire their brick furnaces.
Ismail Salib, 25, has been working in one of the privately owned brick factories for years. Workers in the factories are paid according to how many bricks they produce daily. But now Salib, who lives in a nearby village, Safafah, is worried he may not be able to support his family of three much longer – he has a variety of lung problems.
“Medicine is really expensive,” he told NIQASH, admitting that every now and then he was forced to stay in bed coughing, rather than go to work. “Most of the time I can't afford it.” And, Salib, explains, he didn't finish his education because he married young; he knows it would be difficult to find employment in another, less life-endangering sector.
Each brick-making plant in the area employs around 150 locals, many of whom come from Safafah village. Many of the villagers report health problems from working in the brick-making factories. The mayor of Safafah, Nassim Jassim Owais, believes that a disproportionate number of health problems – including cancer, asthma, pneumonia and birth defects – can be blamed on the brick manufacturers. Owais also thinks that a lot of locals don't report illnesses, especially among their children, as they fear losing their jobs.
During a tour of one of the brick-making plants, owner Jamil Katea downplayed environmental and health concerns. “The Department of the Environment has forced us to stop using black oil,” he explains, adding that his factories now use electric kilns, imported from Iran. Some of the brick factories have retrofitted less polluting machinery but it's not always that effective – and renovating the industry thoroughly would be too expensive, the factory owners say.
“The Iranian systems are not that efficient,” says Ali Hussein Raddad, the mayor of the Islah district. “And competition between the different plant owners, coupled with high demand, means that many of them operate the plants all night using the old methods.”
The black smoke coming out of the brick factories is also doing damage to the environment. Agricultural land gets covered in soot, soil salinity is rising and the price of livestock here has dropped sharply thanks to the pollution.
Penalties have been imposed on some plants, says Mohsen Aziz, who heads the provincial Department of the Environment in Dhi Qar. Nine plants that didn't comply with instructions had their work suspended and financial penalties were imposed on others. Even so, the plants that were closed continued to operate because there was nobody there to supervise their shut-down.
The problem that the brick factories represent is one of the most pressing environmental issues in the province, he noted. “There are about 107 brick plants and most of them have official licenses,” Aziz told NIQASH. “They are all over the province but almost half of them are in Islah.”
Some politicians are also paying attention to the issue. Dakhel Radhi, a member of Dhi Qar's provincial council, says he wants to have the council discuss the problem and come up with some sensible solutions. However he also said that there would be a number of formalities to go through before he could do this – and that might take some time, he added.