NAHRAN OMAR, IRAQ – The men of Nahran Omar, a village in the heart of southern Iraq’s oil country, filed into a Shiite shrine clutching envelopes with X-rays, medical reports and death certificates.
They had come to describe the misery they say is caused by the burning gas and chemicals spewing out of the oil wells in their village. Each one had a sick son or a dying wife, an ill brother or sister.
“Imagine that in the town you come from every family has someone who has cancer,” said Khalid Qassim Faleh, a tribal leader. “This is the situation in Nahran Omar.”
The chemicals in the air — in Nahran Omar and other oil towns across southern Iraq — come from the orange flames atop the oil wells, burning away the natural gas that bubbles up with the oil. The chemicals pollute the air, land and water.
Many countries have reduced the practice, known as flaring, in part because it wastes a precious resource. The amount of gas Iraq flares would be enough to power 3 million homes, the International Energy Agency said.
The practice contributes to Iraq’s bizarre energy paradox: a country with some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves faces a chronic power shortage and frequent blackouts and has to import gas.
“We respect people’s criticism,” said Iraq’s former oil minister, Thamer Ghadban. “But let them come here and try to operate oil and gas plants under these circumstances.”
After years of delays, Iraq opened a large recapture plant in Basra in 2018 at a cost of an estimated $1.5 billion, according to oil industry experts. But the plant is only a first step: it recovers a little more than half of the gas from three large oil fields. There are 15 oil fields in Basra Province alone.
Flying into Basra at night looks like a descent into Dante’s inferno: spires of flame cast pools of light in the darkness. A sizzling city — summer temperatures regularly exceed 120 Fahrenheit — of nearly 3 million people in Iraq’s southeastern corner, Basra and the surrounding province hold 60% of Iraq’s proven oil reserves. But it was not the temperature that has citizens on alert.
“We are sounding the alarm,” the weatherman said. “Today there are poisonous gases in the skies of southern Iraq that can harm people. The poisonous gases are a result of oil and car exhaust.”
Gas flaring is not the only cause of pollution. Petrochemical plants, aging sewage plants, uranium from degrading weapons and matériel from recent wars all contribute to what Shukri Hassan, a professor of environment, calls “a cocktail of pollutants.”
“The air quality is really bad, water quality is also very poor, and there are many problems with the soil,” he said. “All of that makes Basra not a livable place.”
An hour outside of Basra, the village of Nahran Omar offers a glimpse of the special hell of life amid an oil field. The village, population about 1,500, comprises three hamlets along the banks of the Tigris River. Five wells dominate the eastern end of the village.
The wells pump out a mix of oil, water and gas, primarily methane. The oil-tainted water drains into a pond on the village’s outskirts, killing any life there. The flares produce what the locals call oil rain, a precipitate made from water and hydrocarbons that do not completely burn during flaring and which, as it cools, absorbs water in the atmosphere. The breezes carry the brew to nearby houses.
The flares roar day and night. Children born in the past decade have never seen a dark night sky.
“We cannot breathe here,” said Beshir Aude el-Jabber, the community leader. “If you want to breathe, you have to drive away from our village.”
Most families have a member who has had cancer. “My son died five years ago of lymphoma,” said Abu Beshir Nasir Shreggi, 58, a teacher. When his son got sick, a member of the provincial council suggested he send his son abroad for treatment. “That would cost $50,000 and no one is going to give me the money,” he said. “And so my son is dead.”
The Environment Ministry has levied numerous fines against Basra Oil — a state-owned enterprise — for a variety of violations. But the company acknowledges that it is cheaper to pay the fines than to build another recapture plant, which can cost $1 billion or more.
Despite the pollution and illness, no one there wants the oil wells to close.
Faleh struggled to explain his feelings: He suffers from breast cancer and expects that he will die of it in a few years. But if the oil wells are killing villagers, he said, at least the industry could provide a livelihood. “You see our lives are over,” he said. “We want to do something for our children.”