The Secret Behind the Sanctions
How the U.S Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water
by Thomas J. Nagy
The Progressive magazine, September 2001
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 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, or 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
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
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
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
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 to 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 endemic diseases."
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 sanitation."
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 1 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
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
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
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
Thomas J. Nagy teaches at the School of Business and Public
Management G George Washington University.