Catastrophe in Qayyarah

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After burning for three months, fires in Qayyarah leave northern Iraq with a twin humanitarian and environmental crisis that will impact thousands of refugees and reshape the region’s political economy. 

Iraqi photojournalist Ali Arkady provided exclusive images for this story, where indicated. He gives a sobering and visceral glimpse into the suffocating reality for Qayyarah’s residents and those passing through the sub-district’s checkpoints. Ali’s photographs have been published in international and Iraq media, and shown in more than a dozen exhibits in Iraq, Dubai, Georgia, and Germany

Smoke dispersion over northern Iraq between May and October 2016 (Image: NASA)

Residents in Qayyarah today live in an apocalyptic twilight. As ISIS militants retreated from the strategically critical area 65 km south of Mosul on 23-26 August, they ignited 19 oil wells on the town’s outskirts; one month later, they torched the nearby Mishraq sulfur plant. These two fires unleashed plumes of smoke and toxic gases that blocked the sun and forced over 200 families to flee their homes within hours. By 4 November over 1,500 people were made seriously ill by the poisoned atmosphere.

The humanitarian and environmental catastrophe in Qayyarah will gouge enduring scars into the region, its economy, and most importantly, its inhabitants. After nearly three months of complete exposure, the town’s 20,000 residents – and thousands more internally displaced people (IDP) moving through Qayyarah’s checkpoints – suffer severe breathing problems; local health providers are dangerously over-stretched responding to this immense need. Over the longer-term, local populations – two-thirds of which relied on agriculture for their income pre-2014 – will struggle to recover their financial footing as groundwater pollution and infrastructure destruction handicaps farming.

The situation in Qayyarah is desperate. In September, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande, declared that “stabilizing [the area] cannot wait – it has to happen now.” Over two months later, fitful efforts to extinguish the flames and provide essential services to residents underscore how challenging it is to match these words to action.

Public Health Emergency

Particulate matter released by the fires in Qayyarah have spread a dull gray film across the sub-district – coating trees, animals, buildings, and children in a suffocating shroud. Local clinics operating without electricity, clean water, or oxygen can do little more than distribute breathing masks to residents. Qayyarah’s only hospital, which was severely damaged in the fight to extirpate ISIS, today lacks equipment to adequately diagnose or treat an influx of patients – most of whom are young children. Although military officials repeatedly promise to provide desperately-needed medical supplies, the Iraqi Army is too overstretched across northern Iraq to fulfill its commitments quickly.

An Iraqi soldier near Qayyarah. (Image: Ali Arkady)

The health emergency is twofold. The flames at Mishraq released dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide – causing burns, hypoxia, constrictive bronchitis, and pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs). High levels of exposure coupled with inadequate treatment will likely leave many residents with lung damage and an asthma-like condition called reactive airway syndrome; direct contact with sulfur particles can permanently impair vision and damage the cornea.

Smoke from the oil fires exacerbates the emergency, presenting unpredictable dangers to residents and IDPs trapped under ashen skies. Fire crews, assisted by advisors from the Iraq National Oil Company and the Kuwaiti government, have struggled to contain the massive fires at wellheads and nearby industrial facilities given equipment and funding shortages. Civilians attempt to filter out the thick smog using paper masks, while Iraqi and coalition soldiers in the area wear gas masks. As security operations against ISIS insurgents continue across the town and sub-district, efforts to accelerate firefighting and recovery work remain sluggish.

A displaced family near Qayyarah. (Image: Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program/Redux)

Today, the stench of petrol overwhelms Qayyarah’s inhabitants. Thick clouds of particulate matter, acidic aerosols, and toxic metals leave civilians with burned airways, respiratory infections, dizziness, and clogged lungs. Medical studies conducted on US troops and Kuwaiti civilians following the 1991 oil fires in Kuwait found that prolonged exposure to these substances can cause chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Although initially spread as aerosols, these pollutants present long-term dangers as they settle into the soil and surface water, accumulating in wells, crops, and farmland.

Policymakers and reconstruction teams should not ignore the public health emergency in Qayyarah. Of the one million IDPs who may flee fighting in Mosul, the UN conservatively predicts that 350,000 will move into or through the sub-district – in most cases housed in temporary or ad hoc camps. On 1 November, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimated that 50 percent of civilians displaced around Mosul since 17 October are sheltered in the Qayyarah area. For aid agencies already scrambling to meet the needs of local residents, new arrivals may be left to the mercy of shifting winds. Without an adequate and sustainable medical response, the fires in Qayyarah could precipitate a broader health crisis across a vast region and a vulnerable, dispersed population.

Smoke blots out the sun. (Image: Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program/Redux)

Burning the Land

The severity of human tragedy in Qayyarah hides the deeper impact that pollution will have in a region that produces 41-49 percent of Iraq’s foodstuffs, including barley, wheat, and cereals. Sulfur dioxide released into the atmosphere during the last week of October threatens the region’s agricultural health, leaching into the soil as sulfurous acid. Low-dose exposure to sulfur pollutants over an extended period can lead to necrosis and cumulative buildup of toxins in crops that will impact future yields. While studies conducted on the environmental impact of the June 2003 Mishraq fire (another intentionally set fire at the same facility) concluded that sulfur pollution in areas farther away from the plant diminished after two years, the growing areas in the immediate Qayyarah area will suffer significantly over an extended period of three to five years, according to data from 2003-2007. A 2005 UNEP study concluded that the 2003 incident caused vegetation die back across a 200 square-km area, leading to rapid soil erosion and destruction of agriculturally-critical topsoil.

Particulate matter released by oil fires present a secondary threat that could affect the region’s political economy in the medium-to-long-term. Data collected following the burning of 600 Kuwaiti oil wells in 1991 indicate that smoke and pooling oil could deposit pollutants into the soil over a period of three to four years, mixing with sand and gravel to form “tarcrete.” Larger oil spillages seeped into the soil, tainting groundwater supplies. International reclamation efforts in Kuwait removed 21 million barrels of oil from Kuwait’s landscape, but at a staggering cost of $1.5 billion over a ten month period; some fires burned for over two years. While the number of oil wells in Qayyarah is nowhere near those burned in 1991, security challenges, economic shortfall, and resource overstretch could handicap similar efforts there – prolonging recovery for people and land.

Fallout from the oil fires spreads southeast (Image: European Space Agency)

The fires exacerbate damage already inflicted to northern Iraq’s agricultural infrastructure since 2014, when the region lost 40 percent of its growing capacity. In Ninewa, reports emerged in 2014 and 2015 that ISIS administrators had levied taxes on farmers for irrigation services; Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga reportedly blocked some canals in an effort to deprive ISIS fighters of drinking water in occupied territory. Baghdad has struggled to restore northern Iraq’s vital agricultural sector, and the fallout from Qayyarah will worsen the challenges. In April, Naif Saido Kassem, the mayor of al- Shemal sub-district in Sinjar, said it would take $70 million to repair the damage in his jurisdiction. So far, the Iraqi government has only provided $45 thousand. Recovery efforts in Qayyarah will carry a similar price tag – an insurmountable financial challenge given Iraq’s current economic situation. In the critical post-ISIS years, as liberated populations seek to reconstruct sustainable livelihoods, the damage to northern Iraq’s agricultural economy may prove a critical obstacle.

A girl herds sheep with fleece blackened by soot. (Image: @nicoletung6)

Uncertain Recovery

Mosul’s impending liberation will drain resources from recovery and reclamation efforts. However, with six oilfields still under ISIS control in areas around Iraq’s second-largest city, Iraqi and international policymakers should learn from the experience in Qayyarah. Three months after the town’s liberation, more than a dozen oil wells continue to burn there. Local firefighters are pessimistic about their ability to control the crisis on their own, slowed by funding shortfalls and dangers from remaining explosives on some wellheads. Ayar Shadir, an INOC engineer, told the Kurdish news agency Rudaw on 15 November that “we cannot set a timeframe by which we can put out the burning oil wells. As of now we have controlled only one burning oil well.”

In the meantime, smoke continues to billow from the ground around Qayyarah. As all eyes peer toward operations in Mosul, the town’s residents, as well as the thousands expected to arrive as refugees, have been left to choke on fumes that, as Al Jazeera describes, “can leave the skies clear on one day, and blot out the sun the next” – a tragic reminder of how intense, prolonged, and unpredictable the fight for Iraq’s future will be.