The Secret Behind the Sanctions:
How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply
by Thomas 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
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,
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
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
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 diseases."
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 poor
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."
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 government."
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
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
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 0f 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 he
helpful and responsive.
Thomas J. Nagy teaches at the School of
Business and Public Management at George Washington University.
Global Secrets and Lies