IRAQ: Water supply was deliberately contaminated

Wednesday, September 27, 2000 - 11:00

The US-led forces deliberately destroyed Iraq's water supply system during the 1991 Gulf War — flagrantly breaking the Geneva Convention and causing thousands of civilian deaths — reported the Glasgow Sunday Herald on September 17. Since the war ended, US and British war planes, and United Nations Security Council sanctions, have thwarted attempts by Iraq to make contaminated water safe.

A respected US professor intends to pursue criminal indictments under international law against those responsible. Professor Thomas Nagy, a professor of expert systems at George Washington University with a doctoral fellowship in public health, told the Sunday Herald: "Those who saw nothing wrong in producing [this plan], those who ordered its production and those who knew about it and have remained silent for 10 years would seem to be in violation of federal statute and perhaps have even conspired to commit genocide".

Nagy obtained a minutely detailed seven-page document prepared by the US Defense Intelligence Agency, issued the day after the war started, entitled "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities". It was circulated to all major allied commands and urged that Iraq's water system be targeted.

It noted that Iraq had gone to considerable trouble to provide a supply of pure water to its population and was dependent on importing specialised equipment and purification chemicals, since water in Iraq is "heavily mineralised and frequently brackish".

The Sunday Herald reported that the DIA document stated: "Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidents, if not epidemics, of disease and certain pure-water dependent industries becoming incapacitated."

The report concluded: "Full degradation of the water treatment system probably will take at least another six months."

During Western bombing campaigns against Iraq, the country's eight multi-purpose dams have been repeatedly hit, wrecking flood control, municipal and industrial water storage, irrigation and hydroelectric power. Four of seven major pumping stations were destroyed, as were 31 municipal water and sewerage facilities, resulting in sewage pouring into the Tigris River. Water purification plants were incapacitated throughout Iraq.

Article 54 of the Geneva Convention states: "It is prohibited to attack, destroy or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population". The article includes among these, foodstuffs, livestock and "drinking water supplies and irrigation works".

Dr David Levenson, who visited Iraq immediately after the Gulf War on behalf of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, told the Sunday Herald: "For many weeks people in Baghdad — without television, radio, or newspapers to warn them — brought their drinking water from the Tigris in buckets. Dehydrated from nausea and diarrhoea, craving liquids, they drank more of the water that made them sick in the first place."

Levenson estimated that many thousands died from polluted water. Water-borne diseases in Iraq today are both endemic and epidemic. They include typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis, cholera and polio (which had previously been eradicated). A child with dysentery in 1990 had a one in 600 chance of dying; in 1999 it was one in 50.

Chlorine and essential equipment parts needed to repair and clear the water system have been banned from entering Iraq under the UN sanctions.

The Glasgow newspaper reported that US Democrat member of Congress Tony Hall had written to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to express concern at the "profound effects of the deterioration of Iraq's water supply and sanitation systems on children's health". Hall informed Albright that diarrhoeal diseases are of "epidemic proportions" in Iraq and are "the prime killer of children under five".

Sanctions against contracts for water and sanitation are "a prime reason for the increase in sickness and death", Hall told Albright. Of 18 contracts, wrote Hall, all but one were placed on hold by the US government. Contracts were for purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps, water tankers and other water industry-related items.

"If water remains undrinkable, diseases will continue and mortality rates will rise", Iraqi trade minister Muhammed Mahdi Salah told the Sunday Herald. According to Iraq's health ministry, more than 10,000 people died in July of sanctions-related causes — 7457 were children, and diarrhoeal diseases were one of the main causes. In July 1989, the figure was 378.

From GLW issue 422