People like Ali Hussein Julood, a teenage leukemia survivor who lives on an Iraqi oil field co-managed by BP, are a long way from the global leaders making climate pledges at COP. Ali contributed to exposing the truth about the community’s exposure to toxic air when it was uncovered by the BBC that BP was not disclosing the gas flaring from the field.
The author first learnt about the practice of gas flaring—burning off the hazardous surplus gas that is a byproduct of oil drilling—when she first saw footage shared on Twitter in 2019 of burning skies and clouds of black smoke hovering over people’s homes in Iraq’s oil fields.
They learned from satellite data that Rumaila, in Basra, southern Iraq, is the gas flare-up capital of the globe. In addition to being a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, gas flaring is also known to release benzene, which raises the risk of cancer, especially juvenile leukemia.
Numerous residents of five different communities near oil fields, including Rumaila, who they spoke to all shared the same narrative about having a close friend or cousin who had cancer, frequently leukemia.
Ali, who was 18 at the time, was one of them. His father had sold every item in the house to generate money for his son’s cancer treatment in Turkey. Ali claimed that persons who lived close to oil fields were a common sight at the Basra cancer hospital. Locals have dubbed Rumaila, a town of several thousand inhabitants, “the shadow town” due to its isolation and dearth of essential amenities. The cemetery is how Ali and his friends refer to it.
“We’d be playing football, then we’d have to run inside, because of the clouds of smoke suffocating us and oil raining from the sky,” Ali told to BBC.
However, there were no data available on the prevalence of cancer in these areas. A document from the Basra health department that was leaked to us revealed that Basra’s cancer rates were three times higher than what official statistics indicated. They later discovered that the Iraqi government was actively suppressing data on this subject.
People who were working and living in Rumaila sent them movies that gave them a sense of life there, but we were having trouble getting access to the area to take our own footage. Their official requests were denied at least five times, and the oil field, which is protected by many checkpoints and is 1,800 sq km in size, is larger than some small countries. Beyond those checkpoints, the region is guarded by private security organizations working for the oil companies and the Iraqi oil police. The armed militia organizations who control southern Iraqi politics and benefit from the oil operations at their doorstep are also responsible for all of this.