Kurdish Petroleum: Blessing and Curse

On May 21, we  headed out of Sulaymani to learn how the oil industry has affected people at the local level.  We stopped in Chamchamel en route.  This city was formed after the 1988 "anfal" in which 180,000 Kurds were deported and killed by the Iraqi Government.  Some 4000 villages were destroyed.  Some villagers ended up in what today is Chamchamel.  We were about to visit the village of Cormor, now repopulated after the "anfal."

Our day was spent learning about the social, economic, psychological, and political hardships that have come with the expansion of oil and gas drilling in Kurdistan.  The principal issues as presented to us were lack of consultation with villagers by oil companies and government alike, inadequate or no compensation for land seizures, the absence of a legal framework for the industry, environmental pollution, loss of water resources, lack or corporate social responsibility, lack of jobs, absence of social services and education, land mines, and despair.  These problems are exacerbated for returnees from the "anfal."  They had to start over once before.

A major issue hit us as we attempted to reach the village.  The oil company Danaoil cut off the main route of six miles from the road.  Instead, villagers must negotiate a tortuous rutted gravel road of 25 miles, along which land mine warnings are posted.

Cormor villagers had assumed oil would bring them prosperity: good jobs, higher incomes, health and education, and stability.  Lack of education led some to sign away their rights for compensation that was too low.  Many received nothing at all.  

These villagers are willing to work.  They have negotiated with the oil company for jobs.  They had thought they'd be able to provide security and transport, at the very least, since they know the area.  Only two villagers were hired, however, for a labor force of over 1000.  Even an engineering graduate couldn't find work there.  Villagers linked jobs to political patronage.  Arabs and Kurds from afar get the positions, they said.

Water is a big issue.  At present, the government delivers water.  This is because the 20 aquifers in the village dried up after the oil company put in a new water system above the village.  Whatever water they get is polluted.  People drink only bottled water.  We hiked up to the new water pump.  

The villagers have sought to resolve their issues peacefully.  They have met with the local legislators, with the local mayor, with the oil company, and with various ministries.   They have received promises but no action.  They have held peaceful demonstrations.  Should they demonstrate again, they expect the police will come again, too.  Many have sons serving at the Front, fighting against ISIS.  With all the problems at home, however, they would not be surprised if young people went to fight for ISIS instead.  

Leaving the village, we headed for the Kurdish capital of Hawler (Erbil).  The contrast between this small village and the big city was striking.  We met with a well-respected journalist who is an authority on oil and who has been promoting corporate social responsibility.  He and colleagues have surveyed some 72 villages and have spoken with over 500 people.  

One reason for so many problems in the oil industry is that no environmental impact surveys were implemented prior to giving contracts for developing oil and gas.  There was no legal framework either.  Iraq has some laws dating to the 1970s, he said, and Kurdistan had limited experience with the industry.  Moreover, there's no government department to address the types of problems the villagers are facing.  When ISIS came, 3000 oil workers were laid off and not compensated.  

The government has not been oblivious to the types of problems presented by the villagers, he said.  The government committed to paying $100 per year plus other amounts depending on the concession but started paying only in 2016.  Companies often think they are being socially responsible when they engage in charity.  Corporate social responsibility is something else.  

Most fuel is being transported by tanker and by road.  Companies generally have links to political parties.  It's not clear who pays if there is an oil spill.  One company destroyed 300 dunums of land for one small well, and this is replicated elsewhere.  It is also common to misuse the land and leave refuse.  Controlling the industry is hampered by the fact that, while there are 27 drillers, there are hundreds of companies accounting for services to these drillers.

From these conversations, it was clear that both government and the companies should be working together to mitigate the effects of the oil industry on the Kurds impacted by it.  There also seemed to be a lack of accountability for funds given to government for these mitigation efforts.  

Traveling through the countryside, I was struck by the beauty of the land and the promise that it holds.   The region has access to enormous wealth that can be used to help its people, who have already suffered so much in the past and who, at this very moment, are on the front lines defending it.  The individuals with whom we spoke have risked a lot to press for human rights.  We need to keep partnering with them.