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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Iraq's State of the Environment

Air Date: Week of

Two years after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis are still without clean water or adequate electricity. Host Steve Curwood talks with Los Angeles Times staff writer T. Christian Miller about the environmental challenges in a post-Hussein era.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Two years ago this month, Iraqi citizens and U.S. soldiers in Baghdad brought down the statue of Saddam Hussein and with it a dictatorship that had oppressed millions. It seemed the Iraqi people could finally rebuild their country. But since then, there have been multiple roadblocks to reconstruction, and pollution is one of them.

With me to discuss the environmental challenges of Iraq is T. Christian Miller. He's a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times and he joins me now from Washington D.C. Hello, sir.

MILLER: Hey, thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: So, you've been back and forth to Baghdad several times this year, filing stories on the restoration effort there and I guess you're going back shortly.

MILLER: Yes, I should be going back next month.

CURWOOD: In particular, what are the environmental challenges that Iraqi people are facing today?

MILLER: There's just a myriad of environmental challenges. There's polluted rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates both were the dumping ground for any number of industrial plants that were dumping without any regulation at all for decades under Saddam Hussein. It continues that way today. There's been no real effort to rein in the pollution going into those rivers.

The air quality has certainly been affected by the power plants and they occasionally run simply black emissions. I recall talking to an engineer who just said that the environment is not something they're worried about now. They're worried about getting the power plants running. And, the environment will come later.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about water quality. In a recent article, you described a sewage treatment plant called Kerkh. Really sounded like a disaster there. How widespread is this problem with sewage in Iraq right now?

MILLER: Yeah, certainly the sewage in waterfront has been a widespread disaster. If there's been any one area of the reconstruction, which has completely failed to deliver, it's water, clean water and treatment of sewage areas. And that's because the system that the U.S. found when it arrived was at the point of collapse. There were crumbling sewer pipes, there were sewage plants that hadn't been operational for years. I mean, you have to understand Baghdad, the city is about six or seven million people and there's just no sewage treatment at all. Everything that gets flushed down the toilets in Baghdad ends up getting dumped directly into the rivers. So, in this case of Kirk, the idea was we'll get this one plant up and running and we'll at least have some capacity to treat sewage again and clean it before we dump it into the Tigris River. What happened is the U.S. dedicated about 20 million dollars to that project, got it running again, turned it over to the Iraqis and, within the course of a few months, the Iraqis had run it into the ground. And the plant was as bad as it had ever been and, essentially, non-functional.

CURWOOD: Is this corruption, people stealing stuff or just people not showing up for work? What happened?

MILLER: I think there were a variety of things. Yeah, corruption was certainly part of it. And, there was just plain failure by the U.S. to really pay attention. The U.S. stance is, after we turn it over to the Iraqis, it's their problem. We've made the investment, they have to run it. And, so, even if they run it into the ground we're not going to intercede to stop them. And, finally, there is a problem with the Iraqis just not showing up for work, not maintaining the plant, not particularly caring because they're getting paid whether they show up or not, so what does it matter if the sewage plant goes south. It doesn't really matter to them.

CURWOOD: T., how do Iraqis view their environment today?

MILLER: That's a good question. I'd venture to guess, based on the few conversations I've had on this topic, that it's a concern for Iraqis, especially on the clean water issue. I mean, there's many, many hundreds of thousands of children who have died in Iraq from water-borne diseases, but I would also say that the environment is not the highest priority amongst many Iraqis for whom the issues of security in daily living really take precedence.

CURWOOD: T. Christian Miller is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. T., thanks for taking this time with me, today.

MILLER: Glad I could be here.



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