A senior Iraqi government official has said that water treatment plants are critically short of chlorine gas which they need to purify public water supplies. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that supplies of the gas are being held up due to fears it might be used as a chemical weapon, and adds that chlorine is vitally necessary to control an ongoing cholera outbreak in Iraq.
A recent report in the New York Times quoted Dr Ryadh Abdul Ameer, director of the Basra health ministry.
“We are suffering from a shortage of chlorine, which is sometimes zero,” he said. “Chlorine is essential to disinfect the water.”
Iraq is believed to be suffering from a cholera outbreak at present, with tens of thousands of people falling ill in the relatively peaceful Kurdish northern regions. There are only a few confirmed cases in Baghdad and points south thus far, but cholera is often reported as nonspecific diarrhoea by embarrassed public-health authorities.
One of the ways in which cholera is most easily prevented is treatment of water supplies using chlorine. Unfortunately, there have been several bombing attacks in Iraq where chlorine gas cylinders were included in explosive devices. Chlorine must be delivered in vast quantities to confined spaces if it is to be of any practical use as a poison gas, being dangerous only in quite high concentrations. Normally the extra fragmentation from the gas cylinders would be far more significant in terms of casualties than the presence of the chemical.
One might as well restrict supplies of welding oxygen, or petrol, or scrap iron for that matter. All would usually be of more use to insurgent bomb makers.
(Trust us on this one: your correspondent was until 2004 a British forces bomb-disposal officer, one of relatively few to have dealt with real chemical weapons.)
Nonetheless, the usual exaggerated hysteria surrounding chemical weaponry seems to have had its effect. AP reports that the WHO's Iraq representative, Dr Naeema al-Gasseer, says that as of last week 100,000 tons of chlorine were being held up at Iraq's Jordanian border because of fears the chemical could be used in explosives. Dr al-Gasseer urged authorities to release it for use in decontaminating water supplies.
Tragic stuff; ignorant chemical-weapons hysteria seems to be leading to a genuine, deadly outbreak of disease. Not to mention getting the war approved in the first place.®