IRAQ: How the US intentionally destroyed Iraq's water supply


In violation of the terms of the Geneva Convention, the United States government intentionally used sanctions against Iraq to degrade the country's water supply during and after the 1991 Gulf War, Defense Intelligence Agency documents have revealed.

According to Thomas Nagy, who discovered the documents during a two-year search, writing in the September issue of US magazine The Progressive, "The United States knew the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children, would pay, and it went ahead anyway".

The primary document, "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities", is dated January 22, 1991, and spells out how sanctions will prevent Iraq from supplying clean water to its citizens.

"Iraq depends on importing specialised equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralised and frequently brackish to saline", the document states.

"With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent United Nations sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease."

The document goes into great technical detail about the sources and quality of Iraq's water supply, Nagy notes.

The quality of untreated water "generally is poor", and drinking such water "could result in diarrhoea", the document says. It notes that Iraq's rivers "contain biological materials, pollutants, and are laden with bacteria. Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur."

The document notes that the importation of chlorine "has been embargoed" by sanctions. "Recent reports indicate the chlorine supply is critically low."

Food and medicine will also be affected, the document states. "Food processing, electronic, and, particularly, pharmaceutical plants require extremely pure water that is free from biological contaminants", it says.

In cold language, the document spells out what is in store: "Iraq will suffer increasing shortages of purified water because of the lack of required chemicals and desalination membranes. Incidences of disease, including possible epidemics, will become probable unless the population were careful to boil water."

The document gives a timetable for the destruction of Iraq's water supplies. "Iraq's overall water treatment capability will suffer a slow decline, rather than a precipitous halt", it says. "Although Iraq is already experiencing a loss of water treatment capability, it probably will take at least six months (to June 1991) before the system is fully degraded."

The document, which was partially declassified but unpublicised in 1995, can be found on the Pentagon's web site at <>.

Nagy also managed to obtain other, unpublicised DIA documents that confirm the Pentagon's monitoring of the degradation of Iraq's water supply.

The first is called "Disease Information", and is also dated January 22, 1991. At the top, it says, "Subject: Effects of Bombing on Disease Occurrence in Baghdad".

The analysis is blunt: "Increased incidence of diseases will be attributable to degradation of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification/distribution, electricity, and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks. Any urban area in Iraq that has received infrastructure damage will have similar problems."

The document proceeds to itemise the likely outbreaks. It mentions "acute diarrhoea" brought on by bacteria such as E. coli, shigella, and salmonella, by protozoa such as giardia, which will affect "particularly children", or by rotavirus, which will also affect "particularly children". And it cites the possibilities of typhoid and cholera outbreaks.

The document warns that the Iraqi government may "blame the United States for public health problems created by the military conflict."

A second DIA document, "Disease Outbreaks in Iraq", is dated February 21, 1990, — according to Nagy the year is clearly a typo and should be 1991.

It states, "Conditions are favourable for communicable disease outbreaks, particularly in major urban areas affected by coalition bombing."

It adds, "Infectious disease prevalence in major Iraqi urban areas targeted by coalition bombing (Baghdad, Basrah) undoubtedly has increased since the beginning of Desert Storm.... Current public health problems are attributable to the reduction of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification and distribution, electricity, and the decreased ability to control disease outbreaks."

This document lists the "most likely diseases during next 69 days (descending order): diarrhoeal diseases (particularly children); acute respiratory illnesses (colds and influenza); typhoid; hepatitis A (particularly children); measles, diphtheria, and pertussis (particularly children); meningitis, including meningococcal (particularly children); cholera (possible, but less likely)."

Like the previous document, this one warns that the Iraqi government might "propagandise increases of endemic diseases".

The third document in the series, "Medical Problems in Iraq", is dated March 15, 1991.

It says, "Communicable diseases in Baghdad are more widespread than usually observed during this time of the year and are linked to the poor sanitary conditions (contaminated water supplies and improper sewage disposal) resulting from the war. According to a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)/World Health Organisation report, the quantity of potable water is less than 5 percent of the original supply, there are no operational water and sewage treatment plants, and the reported incidence of diarrhoea is four times above normal levels. Additionally, respiratory infections are on the rise. Children particularly have been affected by these diseases."

The fourth document, "Status of Disease at Refugee Camps", is dated May 1991. The summary says, "Cholera and measles have emerged at refugee camps. Further infectious diseases will spread due to inadequate water treatment and poor sanitation."

The reason for this outbreak is clearly stated again. "The main causes of infectious diseases, particularly diarrhoea, dysentery, and upper respiratory problems, are poor sanitation and unclean water. These diseases primarily afflict the old and young children."

The fifth document, "Health Conditions in Iraq, June 1991", is still heavily censored. All Nagy could make out is that the DIA sent a source "to assess health conditions and determine the most critical medical needs of Iraq. Source observed that Iraqi medical system was in considerable disarray, medical facilities had been extensively looted, and almost all medicines were in critically short supply."

In one refugee camp, the document says, "at least 80 percent of the population" has diarrhoea. At this same camp, named Cukurca, "cholera, hepatitis type B, and measles have broken out".

The protein deficiency disease kwashiorkor was observed in Iraq "for the first time", the document adds. "Gastroenteritis was killing children.... In the south, 80 percent of the deaths were children (with the exception of Al Amarah, where 60 percent of deaths were children)."

The final document is "Iraq: Assessment of Current Health Threats and Capabilities", and it is dated November 15, 1991. According to Nagy, "This one has a distinct damage-control feel to it".

It begins, "Restoration of Iraq's public health services and shortages of major medical materiel remain dominant international concerns. Both issues apparently are being exploited by Saddam Hussein in an effort to keep public opinion firmly against the US and its Coalition allies and to direct blame away from the Iraqi government."

It minimises the extent of the damage. "Although current countrywide infectious disease incidence in Iraq is higher than it was before the Gulf War, it is not at the catastrophic levels that some groups predicted. The Iraqi regime will continue to exploit disease incidence data for its own political purposes."

And it places the blame squarely on Saddam Hussein. "Iraq's medical supply shortages are the result of the central government's stockpiling, selective distribution, and exploitation of domestic and international relief medical resources."

It adds, "Resumption of public health programs ... depends completely on the Iraqi government".

Commenting on the documents, Nagy says "the United States knew sanctions had the capacity to devastate the water treatment system of Iraq. It knew what the consequences would be: increased outbreaks of disease and high rates of child mortality. And it was more concerned about the public relations nightmare for Washington than the actual nightmare that the sanctions created for innocent Iraqis."

A 1979 protocol of the Geneva Convention, Article 54, relating to the "protection of victims of international armed conflicts", states, "It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive."

But, says Nagy, "that is precisely what the U.S. government did, with malice aforethought.... The sanctions ... constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention. They amount to a systematic effort to, in the DIA's own words, 'fully degrade' Iraq's water sources."

Over the last decade, Washington extended the toll by continuing to withhold approval for Iraq to import the few chemicals and items of equipment it needed in order to clean up its water supply.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions, and that 5000 Iraqi children continue to die every month for this reason.

Says Nagy, no-one can say that the United States didn't know what it was doing.

From Green Left Weekly, November 14, 2001.
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