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Iraq’s Water Supply Destroyed:
The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq’s Water Supply

Over the last two years, I’ve discovered documents of the Defense Intelligence Agency proving beyond a doubt that, contrary to the Geneva Convention, the U.S. government intentionally used sanctions against Iraq to degrade the country’s water supply after the Gulf War. The United States knew the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children, would pay, and it went ahead anyway.

The primary document, “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities,” is dated January 22, 1991. It spells out how sanctions will prevent Iraq from supplying clean water to its citizens. “Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline,” the document states. “With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent United Nations Sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.”

The document goes into great technical detail about the sources and quality of Iraq’s water supply. The quality of untreated water “generally is poor,” and drinking such water “could result in diarrhea,” the document says. It notes that Iraq’s rivers “contain biological materials, pollutants, and are laden with bacteria. Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur.”

The document notes that the importation of chlorine “has been embargoed” by sanctions. “Recent reports indicate the chlorine supply is critically low.”

Food and medicine will also be affected, the document states. “Food processing, electronic, and, particularly, pharmaceutical plants require extremely pure water that is free from biological contaminants,” it says. In cold language, the document spells out what is in store: “Iraq will suffer increasing shortages of purified water because of the lack of required chemicals and desalination membranes. Incidences of disease, including possible epidemics, will become probable unless the population were careful to boil water.”

The document gives a timetable for the destruction of Iraq’s water supplies. This document, which was partially declassified but unpublicized in 1995, can be found on the Pentagon’s web site at www.gulflink.osd.mil. (Felicity Arbuthnot in the Sunday Herald of Scotland, who broke the story, and Charlie Reese of the Orlando Sentinel, who did a follow-up.)

The reason for this outbreak is clearly stated again. “The main causes of infectious diseases, particularly diarrhea, dysentery, and upper respiratory problems, are poor sanitation and unclean water. These diseases primarily afflict the old and young children.”

Iraqi medical system was in considerable disarray, medical facilities had been extensively looted, and almost all medicines were in critically short supply.

The protein deficiency disease kwashiorkor was observed in Iraq “for the first time,” the document adds. “Gastroenteritis was killing children. In the south, 80 percent of the deaths were children (with the exception of Al Amarah, where 60 percent of deaths were children).”

As these documents illustrate, the United States knew sanctions had the capacity to devastate the water treatment system of Iraq. It knew that the consequences would be increased outbreaks of disease and high rates of child mortality. And it was more concerned about the public relations nightmare for Washington than the actual nightmare that the sanctions created for innocent Iraqis.

The Geneva Convention is absolutely clear. In a 1979 protocol relating to the “protection of victims of international armed conflicts,” Article 54, it states: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.”

But that is precisely what the U.S. government did, with malice aforethought. It “destroyed, removed, or rendered useless” Iraq’s “drinking water installations and supplies.” The sanctions, imposed for a decade largely at the insistence of the United States, constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention. They amount to a systematic effort to, in the DIA’s own words, “fully degrade” Iraq’s water sources.

At a House hearing on June 7, Representative Cynthia McKinney, Democrat of Georgia, referred to the document “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities” and said: “Attacking the Iraqi public drinking water supply flagrantly targets civilians and is a violation of the Geneva Convention and of the fundamental laws of civilized nations.”

Over the last decade, Washington extended the toll by continuing to withhold approval for Iraq to import the few chemicals and items of equipment it needed in order to clean up its water supply.

Last summer, Representative Tony Hall, Democrat of Ohio, wrote to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright “about the profound effects of the increasing deterioration of Iraq’s water supply and sanitation systems on its children’s health.”

Hall wrote, “The prime killer of children under five years of age—diarrheal diseases—has reached epidemic proportions, and they now strike four times more often than they did in 1990. Holds on contracts for the water and sanitation sector are a prime reason for the increases in sickness and death. Of the eighteen contracts, all but one hold was placed by the U.S. government. The contracts are for purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps, water tankers, and other equipment…I urge you to weigh your decision against the disease and death that are the unavoidable result of not having safe drinking water and minimum levels of sanitation.” For more than ten years, the United States has deliberately pursued a policy of destroying the water treatment system of Iraq, knowing full well the cost in Iraqi lives.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions, and that 5,000 Iraqi children continue to die every month for this reason. No one can say that the United States didn’t know what it was doing.

See for Yourself. All the DIA documents mentioned in this article were found at the Department of Defense’s Gulflink site. To read or print documents:

  1. go to www.gulflink.osd.mil
  2. click on “Declassified Documents” on the left side of the front page
  3. the next page is entitled “Browse Recently Declassified Documents”
  4. click on “search” under “Declassified Documents” on the left side of that page
  5. the next page is entitled “Search Recently Declassified Documents”
  6. enter search terms such as “disease information effects of bombing”
  7. click on the search button
  8. the next page is entitled “Data Sources”
  9. click on DIA
  10. click on one of the titles. It’s not the easiest, best-organized site on the Internet, but I have found the folks at Gulflink to be helpful and responsive.

Thomas J. Nagy


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Last modified 08/12/05 09:25 AM - Iqra - ISSN #1062-2756