Southern Iraq’s toxic skies are a colonial legacy

The chain of events that led to the poisoning of southern Iraq’s skies by international oil companies started over a century ago, during colonial times.

Oil field near Bafra
A waste of valuable natural resources, gas flaring also contributes to global warming and causes dangerous air pollution that has been linked to severe health problems in nearby populations.[Essam Al-Sudani/Reuters]

On April 21, Ali Hussein Julood, a 21-year-old living in the Iraqi town of Rumaila, on the outskirts of one of the world’s largest oil fields, died from leukaemia. He was told by doctors that pollution from gas flared in the nearby field, which is operated by British Petroleum (BP), had likely caused his cancer.

“Gas flaring” is a low-cost procedure used by oil companies to burn off the natural gas expelled during drilling. A waste of valuable natural resources, it also contributes to global warming and causes dangerous air pollution that has been linked to severe health problems in nearby populations. Some of the pollutants released during this process, such as benzene, are known to cause cancers and respiratory diseases.

Ali, who had been battling cancer for six years when he died, was only the latest victim of the environmental degradation caused by international oil companies like BP in Iraq. In towns and villages near the country’s vast oil fields, thousands of other men, women and children are still living under smoke-filled skies and suffering avoidable health problems because company executives insist on putting profit before lives.

While there is not much publicly available data on the rates of pollution-related illnesses in areas near oil fields in southern Iraq, a confidential report from the Iraqi health ministry recently obtained by the BBC blamed pollution from gas flaring, among other factors, for a 20 percent rise in cancer in Basra, southern Iraq between 2015 and 2018. A second leaked document, again seen by the BBC, from the local government in Basra showed that cancer cases in the region are three times higher than figures published in the official nationwide cancer registry.

Like many other problems and crises that are devastating the lives of ordinary Iraqis today, the chain of events that led to the poisoning of southern Iraq’s skies by international oil companies also started during colonial times.

In the early 20th century, as its navy transitioned from coal to petrol, Britain found itself in increasing need of oil to run its empire and fuel its numerous war efforts. At the time there was already a growing belief that Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and parts of Syria) contained substantial reservoirs of oil, so British authorities directed their search for more oil there.

In 1912, Britain formed the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) with the purpose of acquiring concessions from the Ottoman Empire to explore for oil in Mesopotamia. Following World War I, it brought modern-day Iraq under its own mandate and sped up its efforts to claim the region’s vast reserves for itself.

By 1930, the TPC was renamed the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC) and was put under the control of a consortium made up of BP, Total, Shell and several other American companies. Together, they pushed for a series of “concession agreements” with the newly formed Iraqi government which would give them exclusive control of Iraq’s oil resources on pre-defined terms for long periods. By 1938, the IPC and its various subsidiaries had already secured the right to extract and export virtually all the oil in Iraq for 75 years.

These concessions were granted to the IPC and its subsidiaries while Iraq was ruled by British-installed monarchs and under de facto British control. Thus the state had almost no negotiating power against the British-led consortium which meant it could not ensure the concessions were drafted in a way that served the interests of the Iraqi people. In the end, the agreements not only failed to benefit Iraq in any way, but they also did not contain any provisions aimed at protecting local communities and the environment from the unwanted consequences of oil extraction


The first oil export pipeline in Iraq was built in the north, from the oil fields in Kirkuk to British-controlled Palestine, in the early 1930s. The development of the oil industry in the south, where Ali lived and died, began a few years later. In 1948, large quantities of oil were discovered by international oil companies in Zubair, southern Iraq. Within two years of the discovery, six oil wells were drilled in Zubair and a new pipeline was built to transport the oil from these new fields to the port in al-Faw. Around the same time, oil was found in Nahar Umr, and later, in 1953 one of the world’s largest oil fields, Rumaila, was discovered.

The development of the oil industry in southern Iraq swiftly introduced to the region environmental hazards associated with the extraction of oil. As early as 1952, gas was being flared in Zubair in such large quantities that the night sky over the oil fields was visibly polluted.

In 1955, the Iraqi government started to voice its desire to use the gas being flared in Rumaila and Zubair for electricity generation. In 1960, while negotiating a concession with the IPC, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim formally asked the company to let Iraq exploit the gas that it was not using. The same demand came up again and again in the run-up to the nationalisation of the Iraqi oil industry in 1972, but IPC and its subsidiaries repeatedly turned the Iraqi government down. They were reluctant to allow Iraq use the excess natural gas expelled during oil extraction because flaring allows operators to de-pressurise their equipment and manage unpredictable and large pressure variations without increasing their production costs. Capturing the gas rather than flaring requires them to put in extra safety mechanisms, which would reduce the amount of oil they extract, and with it, their profits.

Iraq nationalised its oil industry in 1972, and by 1990 had built the capacity to capture 95 percent of the natural gas expelled during drilling. However, some of this infrastructure was destroyed as a result of sanctions and subsequent wars, limiting Iraq’s ability to store and use the gas, end extensive flaring and reduce pollution.

Following the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi oil industry was once again privatised as a result of pressure from the US and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As was the case in the early 20th century, any negotiations on oil extraction rights took place when Iraq was still under foreign occupation and gripped by ethno-sectarian conflict, meaning that the state had little power to protect the rights and interests of the local population.

When the process of auctioning off oil fields in southern Iraq began in 2008, the Iraqi government offered foreign oil companies long contracts of up to 25 years, reminiscent of the early concessions agreements with the IPC. These included stabilisation clauses, which insulated foreign companies from legal changes that might emerge over the course of their contracts. This meant that the companies were, and continue to be, unaffected by any environmental regulations passed by the Iraqi government to reduce pollution or bring Iraqi laws in line with emerging international environmental protection standards.

Looking back at the development of the oil industry in southern Iraq makes apparent that the kind of pollution that killed Ali has been in the making for some 70 years. His death – like the deaths of many others who succumbed to pollution-related cancers in his country – was not an unavoidable tragedy, but the natural consequence of a long history of colonial violence and extractive capitalism.

Predatory colonial practices that began over a century ago caused southern Iraq’s vast oil reserves to be left under the sole control of foreign companies today – companies that over and over again put profit before the lives of the Iraqi inhabitants of the lands they exploit.

Ali’s death is yet more proof that colonial violence is far from over and that it has many different faces. Today, the colonisers are killing the peoples of the Global South not only with drones and bombs, but also with century-old extractive practices that gradually turn their homelands toxic.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.