COMMENTARY: Left in the Desert

The Environmental Fallout of the Iraq War

Civilian garbage is added to the military"s massive open burns.
© Photos Steven D. Hanks

The fiery furnace of the Iraqi desert bears witness to some of the most appalling environmental conditions in the world. Alongside the human suffering in the drawn-out Iraq War exists a struggling and ravaged land. The U.S. coalition's occupation of Iraq has threatened a fragile ecosystem with more than just the tools of war. Complicating matters is an unstable, provisional government that does not have the means, or the manpower, to protect the land. But with billions of dollars flowing into the region, it would simply take a little recognition and focused effort to get the environmental tragedy under control.

The influx of massive numbers of troops has brought stress upon the Middle Eastern desert. Despite sky-darkening sandstorms and oppressive heat, the Mesopotamian desert is not a dead world. The ecology of the desert environment is diverse and self-sustaining. But it is also a carefully balanced mix of flora and fauna that does not react well to aggressive external incursion. The thousands of plant species, dozens of terrestrial mammals, and untold numbers of reptiles, amphibians and insects have all been pushed to the brink without the protection of an environmental sustainability policy.

Along with the influx of combat troops comes the support required to keep those troops viable. U.S. tax dollars encourage contractors to flood into the desert in numbers that dwarf that of the combat force. With all these auxiliary civilians come the trappings and byproducts of civilian society. There seems to be little or no concern for the immediate or future environmental implications as machinery grinds across the arid landscape.If policies to mitigate this effect exist, they are neither mandated nor adhered to.

Bottled water waste ends up buried, burned or strewn across the countryside.

As if the hazardous materials generated by conducting an ongoing military campaign were not enough, the waste generated by the untold thousands of civilians compounds the problem. Civilians create excess amounts of garbage that is included in the military's massive open burns. Choking the sky with black smoke, these burns can be seen from miles away. The stench of burning trash permeates the air and infects the soil, containing high levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, arsenic, mercury and barium. These compounds cause reactions ranging from mild irritation to deadly disease among the local population and wildlife. And these open burns do not allow for the complete combustion of refuse, due to their low relative burning temperatures. Ash particulates of halogenated hydrocarbons create a continuous buildup of hazardous substances that leach into the soil and groundwater where they can remain for decades.

Besides the discarded trash, thousands of gallons of raw waste sewage (black water) is generated in the region. Without a working infrastructure, disposal of the waste is cause for environmental concern. Waste water facilities exist only in their infancy, and many others have fallen into disrepair. At central military bases and sub-compounds, raw sewage is trucked off-site and pumped directly into roadside canals. Rarely is waste transported more than a mile from a base or compound before being recklessly discarded. At some sites, the waste is taken directly to a hole in the exterior wall of the compound and simply sprayed into the desert. Other sites feature troughs where the raw sewage is sluiced off the base and then mixed with the groundwater immediately surrounding the compound. Local contractors show no concern for their own environment. Coalition forces tend to turn a blind eye to the systematical, blatant disregard for health and safety.

With a sanitation system in shambles, the thousands of troops and civilians require a healthy supply of clean water. One Baghdad plant, opened in 2006, serves to fill this need. The plant generates 450,000 one-liter bottles of water per day. That translates into the equivalent of 37,500 cases or 625 pallets of water. To put those numbers in perspective, a 45 foot long tractor trailer holds only 22 pallets. This seemingly beneficial production has led to a growing environmental concern—the plastic water bottles must go somewhere. They are certainly not trucked out of the country and recycled. Without a sufficient system to recycle these items, they often end up buried, burned, or strewn across the countryside.

Raw sewage is trucked off-site and pumped directly into roadside canals.

And then there are the more obvious byproducts of war—the open disposal of hazardous materials and junk equipment. War, by its very nature, causes destruction to equipment of all types. Hundreds of miles of open junk fields scar the Iraqi landscape. Thousands of vehicles, ordnance items, construction materials, air conditioning units, armor, tires, and parts litter these fields. Never is this vast destructive creation reused, recycled or rebuilt. It is all left to decay in the sand, poisoning the very land upon which it sits.

The United States government has continued stewardship over the country of Iraq. Will the burden of rebuilding the Iraqi environmental infrastructure fall upon the American taxpayers? Government contracts are typically planned out down to the most specific detail, yet the impact this war has had upon the environment seems to be a second thought at best. The final word on this tragic situation will be written by policy-makers who have never stepped foot in the land they have helped destroy. People speaking on behalf of the environment need to demand answers.

STEVEN D. HANKS spent a year living and working in Iraq, where he witnessed the environmental devastation firsthand.