by Thomas J. Nagy
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
"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.
The document addresses possible Iraqi
countermeasures to obtain drinkable water despite sanctions.
"Iraq conceivably could truck water
from the mountain reservoirs to urban areas. But the capability to gain
significant quantities is extremely limited," the document states.
"The amount of pipe on hand and the lack of pumping stations would
limit laying pipelines to these reservoirs. Moreover, without chlorine
purification, the water still would contain biological pollutants. Some
affluent Iraqis could obtain their own minimally adequate supply of good
quality water from Northern Iraqi sources. If boiled, the water could be
safely consumed. Poorer Iraqis and industries requiring large quantities
of pure water would not be able to meet their needs."
The document also discounted the
possibility of Iraqis using rainwater. "Precipitation occurs in Iraq
during the winter and spring, but it falls primarily in the northern
mountains," it says. "Sporadic rains, sometimes heavy, fall
over the lower plains. But Iraq could not rely on rain to provide
adequate pure water."
As an alternative, "Iraq could try
convincing the United Nations or individual countries to exempt water
treatment supplies from sanctions for humanitarian reasons," the
document says. "It probably also is attempting to purchase supplies
by using some sympathetic countries as fronts. If such attempts fail,
Iraqi alternatives are not adequate for their national requirements."
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. "Iraq's overall water
treatment capability will suffer a slow decline, rather than a
precipitous halt," it says. "Although Iraq is already
experiencing a loss of water treatment capability, it probably will take
at least six months (to June 1991) before the system is fully degraded."
This document, which was partially
declassified but unpublicized in 1995, can be found on the Pentagon's web
site at www.gulflink.osd.mil. (I disclosed this document last fall. But
the news media showed little interest in it. The only reporters I know of
who wrote lengthy stories on it were Felicity Arbuthnot in the Sunday
Herald of Scotland, who broke the story, and Charlie Reese of the Orlando
Sentinel, who did a follow-up.)
Recently, I have come across other DIA
documents that confirm the Pentagon's monitoring of the degradation of
Iraq's water supply. These documents have not been publicized until now.
The first one in this batch is called
"Disease Information," and is also dated January 22, 1991. At
the top, it says, "Subject: Effects of Bombing on Disease Occurrence
in Baghdad." The analysis is blunt: "Increased incidence of
diseases will be attributable to degradation of normal preventive
medicine, waste disposal, water purification/distribution, electricity,
and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks. Any urban area in
Iraq that has received infrastructure damage will have similar problems."
The document proceeds to itemize the
likely outbreaks. It mentions "acute diarrhea" brought on by
bacteria such as E. coli, shigella, and salmonella, or by protozoa such
as giardia, which will affect "particularly children," or by
rotavirus, which will also affect "particularly children," a
phrase it puts in parentheses. And it cites the possibilities of typhoid
and cholera outbreaks.
The document warns that the Iraqi
government may "blame the United States for public health problems
created by the military conflict."
The second DIA document, "Disease
Outbreaks in Iraq," is dated February 21, 1990, but the year is
clearly a typo and should be 1991. It states: "Conditions are
favorable for communicable disease outbreaks, particularly in major urban
areas affected by coalition bombing." It adds: "Infectious
disease prevalence in major Iraqi urban areas targeted by coalition
bombing (Baghdad, Basrah) undoubtedly has increased since the beginning
of Desert Storm. . . . Current public health problems are attributable to
the reduction of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water
purification and distribution, electricity, and the decreased ability to
control disease outbreaks."
This document lists the "most
likely diseases during next sixty-ninety days (descending order):
diarrheal diseases (particularly children); acute respiratory illnesses (colds
and influenza); typhoid; hepatitis A (particularly children); measles,
diphtheria, and pertussis (particularly children); meningitis, including
meningococcal (particularly children); cholera (possible, but less likely)."
Like the previous document, this one
warns that the Iraqi government might "propagandize increases of
The third document in this series,
"Medical Problems in Iraq," is dated March 15, 1991. It says:
"Communicable diseases in Baghdad are more widespread than usually
observed during this time of the year and are linked to the poor sanitary
conditions (contaminated water supplies and improper sewage disposal)
resulting from the war. According to a United Nations Children's Fund
(UNICEF)/World Health Organization report, the quantity of potable water
is less than 5 percent of the original supply, there are no operational
water and sewage treatment plants, and the reported incidence of diarrhea
is four times above normal levels. Additionally, respiratory infections
are on the rise. Children particularly have been affected by these
Perhaps to put a gloss on things, the
document states, "There are indications that the situation is
improving and that the population is coping with the degraded conditions."
But it adds: "Conditions in Baghdad remain favorable for
communicable disease outbreaks."
The fourth document, "Status of
Disease at Refugee Camps," is dated May 1991. The summary says,
"Cholera and measles have emerged at refugee camps. Further
infectious diseases will spread due to inadequate water treatment and
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
The fifth document, "Health
Conditions in Iraq, June 1991," is still heavily censored. All I can
make out is that the DIA sent a source "to assess health conditions
and determine the most critical medical needs of Iraq. Source observed
that Iraqi medical system was in considerable disarray, medical
facilities had been extensively looted, and almost all medicines were in
critically short supply."
In one refugee camp, the document says,
"at least 80 percent of the population" has diarrhea. At this
same camp, named Cukurca, "cholera, hepatitis type B, and measles
have broken out."
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)."
The final document is "Iraq:
Assessment of Current Health Threats and Capabilities," and it is
dated November 15, 1991. This one has a distinct damage-control feel to
it. Here is how it begins: "Restoration of Iraq's public health
services and shortages of major medical materiel remain dominant
international concerns. Both issues apparently are being exploited by
Saddam Hussein in an effort to keep public opinion firmly against the
U.S. and its Coalition allies and to direct blame away from the Iraqi
It minimizes the extent of the damage.
"Although current countrywide infectious disease incidence in Iraq
is higher than it was before the Gulf War, it is not at the catastrophic
levels that some groups predicted. The Iraqi regime will continue to
exploit disease incidence data for its own political purposes."
And it places the blame squarely on
Saddam Hussein. "Iraq's medical supply shortages are the result of
the central government's stockpiling, selective distribution, and
exploitation of domestic and international relief medical
resources." It adds: "Resumption of public health programs . .
. depends completely on the Iraqi government."
As these documents illustrate, the
United States knew sanctions had the capacity to devastate the water
treatment system of Iraq. It knew what 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
"Declassifed 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
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
Thomas J. Nagy teaches at the School
of Business and Public Management at George Washington University.