Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mosul Plagued by Pollution

Disease and death linked to polluted water sources and the rubbish left lying on the streets.
By Sahar al-Haideri

Several days after the water tap ran dry in Maha’s neighbourhood, her four-month-old baby Yousif cried in hunger. Maha had no running water to mix with powdered milk, so she scooped some out of a stagnant pool outside.

With a full belly, Yousif stopped crying. But soon his temperature rose and he was racked with vomiting and diarrhea. Two days later he was dead.

Yousif’s death is one of many here linked to pollution and poor access to clean water, and doctors and residents say the problem is getting worse by the day.

“There are stinking swamps that cause illnesses in children and adults,” said Sameera Ameen, a 44-year-old housewife. “The government has to find a solution to this problem.”

Pediatrician Mahdi Muhammed said most of the patients he sees have respiratory, urinary and digestive problems linked to pollution. He said many children contract cholera and typhoid from poking through garbage piles.

Others, he says, have breathing problems caused by the exhaust fumes from generators and the thousands of cars that flood Mosul’s streets.

Another toxic source, said Muhammed, is the smoke caused by bomb attacks by insurgents.

Amaal Fareed blames the aftermath of a car bomb for killing her two-year-old daughter. After inhaling fumes from the explosion, she developed asthma and eventually suffocated.

Iraq’s ministry of health estimates that 250 to 300 tonnes of garbage are dumped every day into rivers and canals across the country. A new study by researchers at the University of Baghdad says hospitals are the worst offenders, with many of them dumping their trash -which often includes medical waste - into the waterways.

Local resident Aneesa Mustafa calls it an environmental catastrophe, adding, “It’s an unforgivable crime when the streets and public squares in Mosul are swamped with tons of garbage.”

Nine out of ten Iraqis do not have adequate access to safe drinking water, according to a report by the country’s Human Rights Documentation Centre. The report also notes that immune systems are weakened by air pollution in urban and rural areas, and alleges that cancer rates have climbed as a result of exposure to radioactive material used in weapons during the 1991 Gulf War.

There may also be a threat of radiation from radioactive materials produced at a facility outside Mosul. In 1998, a United Nations inspection team removed a quantity of uranium from the site and buried it under three metres of sand in the Sahl Abbas area. But according to Salim Othman Ayub, the head of environmental affairs in Ninewa governorate, insurgents disturbed the site within a few months, digging up the radioactive material in order to sell it.

A more widespread form of pollution comes from fuel-driven generators and cars, as well as the trucks, tanks and helicopters used by United States forces. Mosul has at least 3,000 generators, which have increased in popularity as power outages become more frequent.

Ayub blames the increase in pollution on the security situation, poor infrastructure and a lack of respect for laws. The government does not have the resources to stop factories from polluting. And because Mosul lacks a proper sewage network and a good system for disposing of garbage, much of the waste from both businesses and homes ends up in the water system.

Nor does the government have the resources to treat the water properly. “There is a problem with using chlorine,” said Mahmood Nasir, of Ninewa’s water department. “The amount of chlorine used is small because availability is poor and the chlorine pumping equipment is broken.”

When there is no water from the tap, people are left with little choice.

“We live in a house in the middle of the city, but I have to look for a water source for my family every day,” said taxi driver Mustafa Allawi. “Sometimes the water outages last for weeks, so I have to collect water from the river in a plastic bucket.”

Even if one consciously tries to avoid drinking dirty water, there is always a risk of contamination, as Ibraheem Mahmood Dhafir discovered when he attended a funeral.

“Because of the hot weather they brought us a block of ice so that we could have cold water,” he said. “When they broke open the ice they found a frog inside. It was really disgusting. That means the owners of the ice factory had taken water from the river, not from the tap.”

Sahar al-Haideri is an IWPR trainee in Mosul.

More IWPR's Global Voices