Thousands of families around Mosul are living in a ‘smoke-filled hell’ with scant access to clean water or medical services after ISIS militants set fire to oil wells while retreating from towns and villages on the way to Mosul, Oxfam said today.
ISIS militants have set 19 oil wells ablaze in the Qayarrah area, south of Mosul, as they were pushed northwards into the city by Iraqi forces. The fires have produced clouds of thick black smoke and fumes across an area larger than Adelaide.
With several oil fields still under ISIS control around Mosul, and the potential for thousands of people to flee to the Qayarrah area, there is a risk that many more people could be affected.
Oxfam’s country director in Iraq, Andres Gonzalez, said life was very difficult for many people.
“Even after ISIS has left, many of the people living amid its trail of destruction have told us that life remains unbearable,” Mr Gonzalez said.
“Burning oil wells continue to spew out toxic fumes that burn people’s throats and turn their communities into a smoke-filled hell.
“The Iraqi Government needs to tell citizens what is being done to put out these fires and to avoid a potentially bigger crisis in Mosul.”
The smoke blocks out the sun and turns children’s faces grey with oily soot. People living close to the burning oil say that the smoke burns their throat and lungs and that their babies are having difficulty breathing.
One doctor in Haiji Ali, a town close to Qayarrah, said many of her patients were suffering from bronchitis and that there was a shortage of medicine. She was also seeing an increase in stomach problems as people drank polluted water.
A 67-year-old local man told Oxfam staff that the burning oil wells were making residents sick.
“We need someone to put out the fires. They have been burning for several months now,” he said.
The fires are just one of the challenges facing families who have stayed in or returned to towns and villages recaptured from ISIS. People who have lived through the trauma of two years under ISIS control are now facing shortages of clean water, food, medicine and fuel.
Oxfam is calling on the Iraqi Government to prioritise extinguishing the fires and to seek external support if necessary. They must also explain to communities what is being done and when they can expect this to happen.
With six oil fields surrounding Mosul still under ISIS control, the government must plan for a potentially bigger crisis involving more than a million civilians in Mosul.
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Notes to editors:
Oxfam is providing clean water to families around Qayarrah and supporting water pumping stations to treat the dirty river water that some people have resorted to drinking. We are preparing to scale up our response in camps and communities south and east of Mosul as civilians start leaving the city in greater numbers. We are also providing blankets, food and other vital aid.
The UN reports that 1,000 people have sought health assistance as a result of the toxic fumes in the Qayyarah area as of 26 October. It is likely that many more people are affected but have not sought medical help because a lack of health facilities and restrictions on their movements. In many of the communities where Oxfam is working and visiting, people say the smoke is their top concern.
The area covered by smoke is estimated in this satellite image from UNOSAT (UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme) where the red area indicates thick smoke coverage over a number of days. We use the distance between Qayarrah and Makhmur, 27km, to estimate the area shaded red as 2,290 square km. The area of Adelaide is 1,827 square km.