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fighting for clean air
locals living near basra oil wells move because of pollution

Saleem al-Wazzan
The oil wells in southern Iraq have made the areas relatively prosperous. But they also seem to be making the locals sick. Many say they’re moving out because they don’t want to breathe the poisoned air…
3.10.2013  |  Basra
Oil production outside of Basra.
Oil production outside of Basra.

He’s not yet 40 years old but Lafta Abu Karrar has some very serious medical problems – in particular his respiratory tract is inflamed and his breathing is laboured. He also has what are best described as chemical hypersensitivities.

“The doctors have already told us that we need to change where we live,” Karrar’s younger brother told NIQASH during a visit to the medical clinic where Karrar was being treated. “Also, that we need to avoid places that are polluted – otherwise his life is going to be seriously endangered.”

However this is not particularly easy. Karrar was born in Shuaiba in the southern province of Basra and still lives there; he grew up here ad also worked here. His home is very near oil production and extraction facilities in Shuaiba and many locals believe it is the pollutants caused by these operations that are affecting the health of people like Karrar.

Habib al-Kaabi says he has spent a lot of money trying to cure his son, Ahmad’s breathing problems. The seven-year-old coughs all night and suffers from shortness of breath. “But the medicine we are giving him is not helping,” al-Kaabi says. “We are suffocating because of the fumes and the smoke coming out of the oil wells and we really don’t have any way of avoiding them.”

A doctor working at one the local medical clinics in Shuaiba agrees, suggesting that he knows of about 90 people who have been directly affected by pollution from oil fields.

While international experts have tried to link the by-products of oil extraction and refining to higher rates of cancer – for example in California and Louisiana, where there are multiple refineries and other industrial activity – it is generally accepted that living near a centre of oil production isn’t all that healthy.

“Oil refineries are the largest source of the noxious fumes from evaporating petroleum components laden with carcinogenic compounds such as benzene and toluene in the United States,” writes Terry Tamminen in the 2009 book, Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction.

In particular, sulphur dioxide is a problem; it is “a harmful gas emitted by power plants, refineries, and diesel engines” and causes things like “wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness and other problems, especially during exercise or physical activity,” the American Lung Association, a US organization advocating for better lung health, reports.

A 2006 study from the University of California found that for some people, simply living near to plants or factories put them in contact with another related gas, hydrogen sulphide, and resulted in many of the symptoms that the people of Basra were experiencing.

“No one really cares about the people in this area, and we don’t have the power to communicate with the foreign companies working here,” complains Qais al-Moussawi, head of the local council in Shuaiba. “We’ve already seen a lot of people moving out of this area because of the pollution.”

Naturally, the oil companies operating here and their representatives disagree with these accusations, insisting that they do abide by local environmental regulations. In fact, a source at South Oil, the Basra body responsible for producing most of Iraq\'s oil in the south, says that locals are making these accusations up because they want to pressure the companies for a variety of reasons. These include blackmailing the firms into employing them or their allies or for other benefits, the source noted.

“The pollution resulting from the work of foreign companies here has reached dangerous levels,” says Shukri Ibrahim Moussawi, an environmental activist and professor at the University of Basra. “It is affecting both the environment and the health of people in a province that already suffers because of pollution that resulted from the war [between Iran and Iraq].”

“The Iraqi government should stop the pollution, caused by oil companies who only care about their production and profits and not about any health or environmental costs,” says Abbas al-Haidari, the mayor of the nearby Zubair district. “Zubair produces over half of all of Iraq’s oil yet nobody pays any attention to the area’s infrastructure, the increasing desertification here or the pollution.”

Besides asking the government to put pressure on oil companies to stick to the conditions under which they were granted licenses, local councillors have suggested a number of other solutions too, including a green belt around the cities affected by the oil production and different kinds of drilling. Some of them have also suggested that a law suit be brought against South Oil to force the firm to look into the matter more carefully.

No matter what happens though, one thing is for sure: for people with respiratory problems like Karrar and seven-year-old Ahmad, it will most likely be too late.