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

Poisoned River Blights Lives

Farmers blame a river polluted by untreated sewage for health problems and poor yields.
By Abdel Karem

In his house by the reeking Diala river north of Baghdad, Karim Salman al-Juburi, elder of the local Hamramshe tribe, pointed to sores on the leg of his five-year old son.

Juburi says his son developed the sores after playing in grass wet with river-water.

Just upstream from their house is the al-Rustamiya sewage treatment plant, which was put out of action during the post-war looting of Baghdad a year ago.

Although much of the country’s more urgently-needed infrastructure has been restored since the war, the al-Rustamiya plant is an exception, and still discharges untreated sewage directly into the Diala.

Juburi said 600 farming families downstream feel the effects of the pollution on their health and livelihoods.

"We suffer from skin diseases, especially among the children," he said.

Local residents said the black, slow-moving water of the river attracts mosquitoes, cockroaches, and other insects.

"They cover the sky like a plague. They're like a cloud," said Juburi.

The families also suffer economically from the blighted Diala.

According to Juburi, there are no fish left in the river.

"We cannot breed animals for fear they will be poisoned and die," he said.

Other residents noted that their yields were lower than that of the farms lucky enough to be upstream of the plant’s discharge pipes.

Farmer Ghazi Naji said families have learned that bathing in the river means a quick trip to hospital.

"They are afraid of falling in the river, which we consider a lake of poisons," Naji said.

Residents said a German aid organisation restored a nearby pumping station to provide clean water, but it does not have its own generator and works only when the power is on.

A cleaner river will have to wait until the sewage plant is totally restored – a process which will take at least six months.

"The station is very old. It was established in the early Sixties," said Riad Noman al-Shummary, director of the al-Rustamiya sewage plant.

Even before being put out of commission, al-Rustamiya was working at close to double its intended capacity. Designed to serve a handful of areas of Baghdad, the station was overloaded by the city's expansion.

When public order collapsed and Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, looters arrived to strip the station of electrical wiring and anything else of value.

The United States construction firm Bechtel has been contracted to bring the plant back into operation by installing new pumps and electrical equipment, Shummary said.

He has been assured the station will resume operating by October, although he fears it won't actually start up until the end of the year.

Meanwhile, locals – who had hoped the problem would be fixed before the arrival of the hottest season – face another summer of misery.

"People used to come here to visit the river,” recalled Juburi. “Farms were expensive, as everyone used to want to have a farm here.”

But all that has changed. "Now not even guests will visit us," he said.

Abdel Karem al-Hashemy is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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