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Iraq: Time to quit smoking

The elimination of pollution from gas flaring in southern Iraq is becoming an election issue

The inhabitants of southern Iraq, where most of the country's oil is produced, don't need statistics to tell them that they live in a highly-polluted region of the world. They can see the flames and smell the acidic smoke rising from chimneys where natural gas associated with oil production is burned. The flecks of oil in the atmosphere cloud windows and windscreens.

Iraqis therefore will not be surprised to learn that the latest data from a World Bank-led initiative shows that their country is second only to Russia in a list of gas flaring offenders, burning respectively 16bn cubic metres (0.56 trillion cubic feet) and 21bn cm annually. Iran is in third place, spewing out 12bn cm of gas into the atmosphere every year.

Iraq has climbed the ranks of top gas flaring nations over recent years because of a significant increase in oil production in the south of the country, with the development of gas processing facilities lagging far behind. But with seven Middle East and North Africa states in the top 17 countries named in the World Bank list of gas flarers, pollution from burning associated gas is an issue that the region as a whole needs to take seriously "The very high carbon footprint of GCC nations can be partly attributed to the rampant gas flaring across the region," Salman Zafar, head of Qatar-based environment advisory EcoMENA said. "It increases the concentration of heat-trapping anthropogenic gases which pose major risks to public health, ecology, built-up environment and social wellbeing of the community."

While pollution associated with the oil industry is a Mena-wide phenomenon, Iraq can be considered a special case. Years of war, sanctions, corruption and poor governance, in addition to recent fiscal constraints, have mitigated against the upgrading of facilities and implementation of anti-pollution legislation. Paul Hardisty, an environmentalist with extensive Middle East experience, says the performance of Mena governments is patchy. The UAE has made significant advances over the past decade to regulate air emissions from industry and the oil sector, Hardisty said. "Other countries, such as Iraq, have far less developed regulatory and enforcement frameworks, and current operational conditions fall far below what would be considered best practice in the industry," he added.

Looming health threat

With the head of the World Health Organisation telling the BBC in March that air pollution is "one of the most pernicious threats" facing global public health and is on a much bigger scale than HIV or Ebola, the authorities in Iraq clearly face a potential health disaster in the highly-polluted south of the country. Local government elections are scheduled for September and parliamentary elections next year, and there are already signs that rival Shia factions vying for power in Baghdad are being forced to address gas flaring and other southern grievances.

Oil minister Jabbar al-Luaibi, during a recent visit to southern Iraq, stressed the government's "determination to stop the flaring of associated gas and provide a safe environment for people to live in." He then laid out an ambitious plan to achieve this goal, promising that 70% of produced gas would be processed by the end of this year. This would then rise, to 90% in 2018, with flaring then being eliminated entirely in 2019. This is at odds with a timetable published by the government in 2015 which set 2022 as the year when gas flaring would endon the assumption that oil production by then would be 6m barrels a day. Current production is around 4.5m b/d.

Whether the new target date can be met remains uncertain but steps are being taken in the right direction. In 2013, the state-run South Oil Company became the major partner, with Shell and Mitsubishi, in the newly-formed Basrah Gas Company (BGC). This has made major strides in developing facilities to process gas associated with oil production at Iraq's southern fields. In July 2016, Iraq loaded its first shipment of LPG onto a vessel at Umm Qasr port. This year, according to BGC boss Ihsan Abdul Jabbar, exports will rise by 70,000 tons over 2016 to reach 100,000 tons, with gas condensate exports over the same period doubling to 400,000 cm.

The inhabitants of southern Iraq will hope that the government's optimism in putting a stop to flaring by 2019 is well founded. But they will not be silent until they receive a bigger share of central government budget allocations commensurate with the region's role as Iraq's dominant hydrocarbon producer and oil exporter. At the very least they want Basra to be officially designated Iraq's economic capital, with incentives to develop energy and other industries for the benefit of the region. Basra provincial council member Ahmed al-Sulaiti says the city deserves this special status "simply because it provides money to the whole of Iraq".

Southern Iraq's people will continue to remind politicians in Baghdad vociferously of this fact as elections approach, even if the pollution from gas flaring starts to clear.

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