05/30/2023, 11.39
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Smoke and neoplasms: oil sustains the economy, but kills Iraqis

by Dario Salvi

The phenomenon of flaring - the burning of gas in reservoirs - is becoming a health emergency. The first reports of cases from refugee camps in Kurdistan, but the increase in incidences of cancer affects the entire population. Fr. Samir: 'Every day we hear of new cases', an 'awareness and prevention campaign' is needed but funds are lacking.

Milan (AsiaNews) - The issue of surplus oil production, which is being burned because the alternative disposal costs are unsustainable, remains a priority for the government of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, environmental protection goals are still far off while people continue to fall ill, and die.

The incidences of cancer are growing in numbers, although the extent is still underestimated and, in many cases, neoplasms remain hidden for a long time, only to be discovered when the possibilities for treatment are reduced in an emergency that is as much ecological as it is health-related.

"'The widespread practice of burning crude oil,' Fr. Samir Youssef, parish priest of Enishke, in the diocese of Amadiya, tells AsiaNews, 'concerns the centres of Dohuk and Erbil in particular. During the night, it is common to see fires in the mining areas, it also happens to some extent here in Amadiya. The issue is known, but nobody talks about it: we only know that, every day, we hear about new cases of cancer involving young people, women and the elderly." 

Flaring and neoplasms

So-called gas flaring (or gas combustion) is a practice that consists of burning - without benefit in terms of energy production - excess natural gas extracted along with oil, which would be too expensive because it requires adequate infrastructure. The escaping substance generates a flame above the towers, which is clearly visible even from kilometres away.

The practice is widespread in industrial oil, chemical and natural gas plants, as well as onshore and offshore crude oil production sites. Doctors and local residents are convinced that the increase in neoplasms, particularly in the Kawergosk refugee camp on the outskirts of Erbil, is linked to the flaring of a nearby refinery operated by Kar Group, the largest private company in the energy sector.

A study published last year in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention (Apjcp) found that the number of patients with malignancies doubled between 2013 and 2019 in Erbil and Duhok, and more generally in northern Iraq. A factor, experts explain, related to the resumption of production in oil facilities scattered across the region after the end of the conflict with the Islamic State (IS, formerly Isis), while the central government in Baghdad continues to focus on hydrocarbons to fuel the national economy.

The numbers of the emergency

Cancer and premature births are not the only cause for concern. A study by Global Paediatric Health found that respiratory viruses are almost twice as prevalent among children under the age of 15 in areas administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as in neighbouring Iran.

In the past, authorities in Erbil had sent a directive to oil companies to phase out flaring by 2023, giving them 18 months to comply. However, the numbers - contained in the report by the Environmental Reporting Collective (Erc) - remained the same in the period between 2018 and November 2022.

Moreover, according to World Bank data, Russia burns the most natural gas globally, with a figure of 24.88 billion cubic metres per year as of 2020. Iraq follows closely with 17.37 billion cubic metres.

However, the Erc analysis shows that the Iraqi population, on average, is much closer to the sites than the Russian population. Since October 2018, at least 1.19 million people in Iraq have lived within one kilometre of at least 10 flaring events. In Russia 'only' 275,000 have experienced the same level of exposure. The Kurdish regional government, through its Deputy Minister for Natural Resources Ahmed Mufti, says it has put 'flaring' on the agenda, calling it a 'priority'.

However, he is keen to point out that the 'zero' target is impossible, because the local economy is tied to the crude oil and gas industry. "“Kurdistan is very successful - and I claim the word successful - by managing its flaring, by mitigating the flare to a minimum level within the possibilities and capabilities we have,” he said.  Words that are, however, belied by the facts: above all, the failure to achieve the targets set by the authorities in Erbil themselves.

The (failed) prevention

The World Bank estimates that Iraq literally blows about 17 billion cubic metres of gas every year, worth about 8 billion dollars. The practice causes serious environmental damage and extends from the Kurdish region - where the refugee camps, the first victims of the phenomenon, are concentrated - to Basra in the south.

A BBC investigation showed a direct link between flaring and increased incidences of cancer, due to the release of toxic pollutants such as benzene, known to cause leukaemia. Added to this is the release into the air of a deadly mix of carbon dioxide, methane and black soot, which is highly polluting.

"As a Church," emphasises the Enishke pastor, "we are aware of the problem and are considering how to intervene. I have spoken with a doctor to raise awareness on the issue, but it is the government that has to move in the face of a serious and widespread problem. The number of cases is unknown, but the emergency is real even if fear has prevailed so far. Many, in fact, do not want to take tests or examinations, prevention campaigns are not yet started or well structured, and we rely on the conscience of the individual'.

After the Isis drama and the return of the refugees, at a healthcare level "we are trying to do what we can, but more resources are needed' continues Fr. Samir. "Unfortunately," he adds, "since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine we have been forgotten" except for the support of individuals, small groups or Christian NGOs. "We continue our efforts in all sectors and focus on prevention," he concludes, "but we are doing what we can, in the face of an increasing difficulty in finding resources".


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