Oh, the humanity! Oh, the gastronomy!
Europe and the United States are suffering a tragic shortage of buffalo mozzarella – the soft pillows of cheese beloved by gourmands the world over. The crisis follows the discovery that the Mafia has long been dumping dioxin-laden garbage throughout Italy’s grazing lands, turning creamy cheese to cancer curds.
Iraqis are having it tough, too – though more from terror than terroir. Deprived of the opportunity to be sickened by imported mozzarella, Iraqis are unglamorously poisoned by their own water. Some 83 percent of the country’s sewage slides untreated into the country’s waterways. With two-thirds of Iraqis lacking access to piped drinking water, the shit storm the U.S. government unleashed is literal as well as figurative.
Clean water is about as basic as it gets. In the 20th century, U.S. life expectancy rose from 45 years to 75 years. U.S. health agencies attribute 25 years of this increase to public health measures – chiefly, improved sanitation and access to clean water.
The International Bill of Human Rights considers these conditions human rights. The United States is a signatory to that treaty and also to the Geneva Conventions, which obligate our government – as Iraq’s occupation force – “to ensure sufficient hygiene and public health standards, as well as the provision of food and medical care to the population under occupation.”
But occupation, and the civil war it sparked, have flushed Iraq’s fragile but functioning public health sector down the toilet.
“We don’t do body counts,” Gen. Tommy Franks, who directed the Iraq invasion, famously declared in 2002.
And among the corpses “we” don’t count are those killed by curable or preventable disease.
Last year, at least 30,000 Iraqis in 11 provinces displayed symptoms of cholera – a sometimes fatal disease spread by contaminated water and unsanitary conditions. Virtually eliminated in the West, cholera, if caught early, is easily cured with inexpensive drugs – and by rehydrating with clean water.
But not even the few water treatment facilities and distribution channels still operating in Iraq can guarantee potable water. Chlorine – added to kill bacteria that cause cholera and other diseases – is restricted “because insurgents have started using chlorine trucks in bombing attacks,” says Mark Drapeau, a fellow at the National Defense University.
Since 2003, more than 70 percent of Iraq’s doctors have fled and more than 600 have been targeted and murdered. One doctor who is holding on described his facility as having “no medicines, no bed linens, the smell is very bad. Sewage is out on the floor.”
“Nothing can prevent a cholera outbreak next summer,” Ni’man Mohammad, a physician in Baghdad, told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in February.
Before the U.S.-led wars, Iraq had one of the best healthcare systems in the region. Now it has one of the worst. The World Health Organization now puts healthy life expectancy for Iraqis at 50 years old – 16 years less than in 2002, and 17 years shorter than for neighboring Kuwaitis.
Many of these lost human years are “collateral damage” from an occupation whose leaders flew in ice cream for its own, while allowing garbage and human waste to overflow into waterways, and then into the drinking water and food of the native population.
Many more casualties will surface in years to come. The United Nations has warned of thousands of toxic sites, derelict factories, battle detritus, chemical spills, unsecured hazardous material and depleted uranium. Narmin Othman, Iraq’s environment minister, charged that some 311 sites were polluted by depleted uranium, the Associated Press reported in 2005.
Poor nutrition increases vulnerability to toxins and disease. Brutal as it was, Saddam’s regime provided almost all citizens with a daily ration that met basic nutritional standards. Now, one in four Iraqi children under the age of 5 is chronically malnourished, according to the United Nations.
Only 4 million of Iraq’s 27 million people receive any government food rations. And the rise in international food prices – coupled with high inflation – threatens even this paltry program. In a Feb. 26 article, the Wall Street Journal estimated that the price of the program would more than double, from $3 billion in 2007 to $7 billion-plus this year.
The Bush administration breaks no law – except that of decency – when it allows Americans to eat contaminated mozzarella. But as an occupying force, it is committing a war crime by maintaining priorities that inevitably result in widespread death from preventable or treatable disease.