Oil is the main driver of Iraq’s economy, but at human and environmental costs.
The sky above southern Iraq’s oil fields changes its natural colour when oil towers release gas and chemicals, covering much of the skyline in orange and red flames. The poisonous gas then adds a layer of a grey hue to it, spoiling the blue horizon almost permanently.
And for those who live closer to these factories, breathing the toxic gas is far worse than seeing it from far-off distances.
In Iraq’s southern city of Basra, the cancer rate has been growing at an alarming rate since the last decade. The Ministry of Health recorded 2,000 such cases annually. In one village of 130 households alone, there are about 40 cancer cases and many of them are children, according to the province's mayor. Among other illnesses are chest pain, asthma and hypertension.
The embattled residents say the poisonous gases emanating from oil fields are taking a huge toll on the health of the city's residents.
Iraq was the world’s 6th largest oil producer in 2020, but it’s the world's second-worst offender after Russia when it comes to gas flaring. Nearly 90 percent of Iraq’s crude oil production comes from the oil fields located in the southern part of the country that has suffered for years from a lack of resources itself.
Once called “Venice of the Middle East'', Basra is now home to the biggest oil fields. It produces around 70 per cent of Iraq’s crude, but at an enormous environmental cost – its rivers are drying.
Before the popular countrywide protests in 2019, residents of southern towns frequently protested over issues like a lack of clean water, electricity, shattered infrastructure and pollution.
The environmental troubles in the south are to blame on many factors including corruption and dam-building projects in neighbouring countries, but oil production is one of the main culprits.
Oil flaring operations emit CO2, methane and other forms of toxic gases which contribute to global warming and climate change.
The government is aware of the oil industry's negative impact on the environment and people. Earlier this year, President Barham Salih announced a nine-point plan for tackling climate change in the country.
Acknowledging the issue, Ali Hammood, general director of the oil ministry's technical directorate, said Iraq had flared 45 percent of its oil of its 2.8 bcf/d of gas production in 2020.
But around 90 percent of the country's economy is still mainly dependent on oil production. Therefore, from the government’s perspective, it means that risking any interruption in oil operations can be counterproductive for the country's economy.
The ministry has recently pledged to end gas flaring at its oil fields by 2030, seeking help from international oil companies, S&P Global Platts reported.
But the country’s long-standing issues around governance and corruption pose a challenge to actualise any announced plans, let alone ending the flaring and fighting climate change.
Oil also has been used as a tool in the conflict in Iraq. Particularly during the 2016 Mosul offensive, Daesh torched oil fields, creating dark smoke clouds that blocked blue skies for weeks. The city's residents called it “Daesh winter” amid the intense summer heat.
The company’s willingness to build gas recapturing fields that cost around $1 billion or more, plays a major role. Aware of how excessive flaring impacts air quality, the oil companies still choose to be fined for violating the gas flaring limit. Paying a fine is "cheaper” than reducing the supply, according to a report by the Irish Times.