As if life was not bad enough for Adnan Kadhim – he lives in a slum where municipal authorities dump Baghdad’s rubbish – now someone is setting the waste on fire, making his children sick.
As the United Nations marks World Environment Day on Wednesday, Iraq is suffering a pollution crisis, with trash piling up across the country and thick clouds of smoke produced by inefficient factories hovering above Baghdad.
“The dirt, our children are sick, our families are sick. My daughter has asthma, and I had to take my family to the hospital last night. We had to go at 2 am to give her oxygen. What have we done wrong to deserve this?” asks the 48-year-old, with mountains of rubbish behind him.
No one in his unplanned neighborhood within Baghdad’s southeastern Zaafaraniya district knows who is setting the rubbish on fire, and their complaints to government and municipal authorities have fallen on deaf ears because they are technically not supposed to be living in the area.
“For about a week or ten days now we haven’t been able to sleep or work. We just sitting around because of this smoke, said Jabbar, a builder.
“Every day, it starts at sunset and doesn’t stop until the morning. You can see the tractors (shoveling trash) in front of you. We are being destroyed. We implored the government, and no one did anything, we went to the municipality and still nothing,” he added.
Officials say Iraq suffers from the lack of a formal waste management system, but that they are working on introducing one which they hope will alleviate the country’s numerous environmental hazards which also include pollution from oil production – Iraq is OPEC’s second-largest producer of crude oil – and other industries.
“I am sorry to say there are no hygienic official landfills. All what we have are unorganized areas for waste collection,” said Deputy Environment Minister Jassim Humadi. “We are working hard today to issue legislation establishing the National Center for Waste Management.”
Increasing pollution rates and other “environmental challenges” could be linked to rising rates of chronic diseases such as cancer and respiratory issues, as well as birth deformities, he said. Iraq is working with the international bodies on a plan to help it clean up, he added.
Change is Costly
Business owners say they are doing what they can to operate in a more environmentally-friendly manner but that it is too costly. The government needs to help them do so, they argue.
At a brick factory in Nahrawan, east Baghdad, ovens running on crude oil are releasing thick smoke, making it hard to breath, or see anything.
“Crude oil, if burned in an incorrect way, the way we burn it, of course has emissions. The new ovens which we are upgrading to will reduce these emissions by 60 percent, but that should not be the ceiling of our ambitions,” says Ali Rabeiy, the factory owner.
More environmentally-friendly ovens can fashion bricks and produce only 5 percent of the current harmful emissions, and some even produce none, he said, but they cost anywhere between 4 and 6 billion Iraqi dinars ($3.2-4.8 million), which is not financially feasible for a business like his.
Iraq offered Sunday to mediate in the crisis between its two key allies, the United States and Iran, amid escalating Middle East tensions and as Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers steadily unravels.
Iraqi foreign minister, Mohammed al-Hakim, made the offer during a joint news conference in Baghdad with visiting Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“We are trying to help and to be mediators,” said al-Hakim, adding that Baghdad “will work to reach a satisfactory solution” while stressing that Iraq stands against unilateral steps taken by Washington.
In recent weeks, tensions between Washington and Tehran soared over America deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf over a still-unexplained threat it perceives from Tehran. The U.S. also plans to send 900 additional troops to the 600 already in the Mideast and extending their stay.
The crisis takes root in President Donald Trump’s withdrawal last year of America from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that capped Iran’s uranium enrichment activities in return to lifting sanctions. Washington subsequently re-imposed sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into freefall.
Trump has argued that the deal failed to sufficiently curb Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons or halt its support for militias throughout the Middle East that the U.S. says destabilize the region, as well as address the issue of Tehran’s missiles, which can reach both U.S. regional bases and Israel.
Zarif, who was been on a whirlwind diplomatic offensive to preserve the rest of the accord, insisted that Iran “did not violate the nuclear deal” and urged European nations to exert efforts to preserve the deal following the U.S. pullout.
Speaking about the rising tensions with the U.S., Zarif said Iran will be able to “face the war, whether it is economic or military through steadfastness and its forces.” He also urged for a non-aggression agreement between Iran and Arab countries in the Gulf.
The Shi’ite-majority Iraq has been trying to maintain a fine line as allies Tehran and Washington descended into verbal vitriol. The country also lies on the fault line between Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab world, led by powerhouse Saudi Arabia, and has long been a battlefield in which the Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional supremacy played out.
The mediation offer by al-Hakim, Iraq’s foreign minister, echoed one made Saturday by Mohamad al-Halbousi, the Iraqi parliament speaker. Al-Hakim also expressed concern for Iran’s spiraling economy.
Iranians make up the bulk of millions of Shi’ites from around the world who come to Iraq every year to visit its many Shiite shrines and holy places and their purchasing power has slumped after Trump re-imposed the sanctions.
“The sanctions against sisterly Iran are ineffective and we stand by its side,” al-Hakim said.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested the Islamic Republic could hold a referendum over its nuclear program. The official IRNA news agency said Rouhani, who was last week publicly chastised by the country’s supreme leader, made the suggestion in a meeting with editors of major Iranian news outlets on Saturday evening.
Rouhani said he had previously suggested a referendum to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2004, when Rouhani was a senior nuclear negotiator for Iran.
At the time, Khamenei approved of the idea and though there was no referendum, such a vote “can be a solution at any time,” Rouhani was quoted as saying.
A referendum could provide political cover for the Iranian government if it chooses to increase its enrichment of uranium, prohibited under the 2015 nuclear deal.
Earlier last week, Iran said it quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity though Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the deal, making it usable for a power plant but far below what’s needed for an atomic weapon.
Rouhani’s remarks could also be seen as a defense of his stance following the rare public chastising by the supreme leader.
Khamenei last week named Rouhani and Zarif — relative moderates within Iran’s Shiite theocracy who had struck the nuclear deal — as failing to implement his orders over the accord, saying it had “numerous ambiguities and structural weaknesses” that could damage Iran.
Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state in Iran, did not immediately respond to Rouhani’s proposal of a referendum. The Islamic Republic has seen only three referendums since it was established in 1979 — one on regime change from monarchy to Islamic republic and two on its constitution and its amendments. (VOA)