Chlorine and Cholera in Iraq

Excellent blog post:

So cholera has now reached Baghdad. That's not much of a surprise given the utter breakdown of infrastructure. But there's a reason the cholera is picking up speed now. From the NYT:

"We are suffering from a shortage of chlorine, which is sometimes zero," Dr. Ameer said in an interview on Al Hurra, an American-financed television network in the Middle East. "Chlorine is essential to disinfect the water."

So why is there is a shortage? Because insurgents have laced a few bombs with chlorine and the U.S. and Iraq have responded by making it darn hard to import the stuff. From the AP:

[A World Health Organization representative in Iraq] also said some 100,000 tons of chlorine were being held up at Iraq's border with Jordan, apparently because of fears the chemical could be used in explosives. She urged authorities to release it for use in decontaminating water supplies.

I understand why Iraq would put restrictions on dangerous chemicals. And I'm sure nobody intended for the restrictions to be so burdensome that they'd effectively cut off Iraq's clean water supply. But that's what looks to have happened. What makes it all the more tragic is that chlorine -- for all the hype and worry -- is actually a very ineffective booster for bombs. Of the roughly dozen chlorine-laced bombings in Iraq, it appears the chlorine has killed exactly nobody.

In other words, the biggest damage from chlorine bombs -- as with so many terrorist attacks -- has come from overreaction to it. Fear operates as a "force multiplier" for terrorists, and in this case has helped them cut off Iraq's clean water. Pretty impressive feat for some bombs that turned out to be close to duds.

I couldn't have said it better. In this case, the security countermeasure is worse than the threat. Same thing could be said about a lot of the terrorism countermeasures in the U.S.

Another article on the topic.

Posted on September 25, 2007 at 12:23 PM • 33 Comments

Comments

Good post...September 25, 2007 12:51 PM

I appreciate that the author didn't take the sad route of implying that this is exactly what was intended. The opposite was intended--to spare life. (We see this played out too much politically--as if the US, when removing a murderous tyrrant, intended all the terrorism when the intent was the opposite). But the fact is, regardless of good intentions, when something does more damage then we must take an honest look at it and fix it.

Great post.

Study History, and RememberSeptember 25, 2007 12:57 PM

"The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children, and the children yet unborn. "

Twilight Zone, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," March 4, 1960.

Fear ItselfSeptember 25, 2007 1:03 PM

Wow, why work hard at contaminating the water supply, when all you have to do is make us scared of chlorine?

Sci Fi FanSeptember 25, 2007 1:12 PM

@History - I think you sort of missed the point of the "Maple Street" episode - plant a little suspicion, make weird things happen, and we'll all kill each other.

watermanSeptember 25, 2007 1:36 PM

Why don't they use UV disinfection? It's available for large-scale water treatment, is very effective, and is relatively economical?

RoySeptember 25, 2007 1:39 PM

The US destroyed Iraq's phone system, water supply, transportation, fuel supply, food supply, power supply, and the sewage system -- all civilian targets. This was the 'lead-up' to the war, but why did nobody question why civilians were being targeted? The government even referred to it as 'destroying their infrastructure'.

Well, cholera is to be expected.

not_KurtSeptember 25, 2007 2:32 PM

This is *worse* than simple Security Theater as not only do these so-called security countermeasures provide only the feeling of security (for whom? We, the American public?) while doing little or nothing actually to improve security, the ban on chlorine is actually killing *more* people than any supposed chlorine bombs.

It's rather simple: exploiting the perceived risk of "terrrists!" multiplies the actual risk of spreading cholera.

I think the previous post by "Study History, and Remember" was right on the money: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street and they are us!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_sanctions from the footnotes section:

Between 1991 and 1998, reported Unicef, 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five died. "If you include adults," said Halliday, "the figure is now almost certainly well over a million." In 1996, in an interview on the American current affairs programme 60 Minutes, Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the UN, was asked: "We have heard that half a million children have died...is the price worth it?" Albright replied, "We think the price is worth it."

Don't feel guilty, though. All that collateral damage were simply "future-terrorists" we had to extinguish to protect our way of life ---> http://tinyurl.com/39pqr4

WoodySeptember 25, 2007 3:40 PM

UV also doesn't continue to work after you leave the UV stage. Chlorine stays in the water, and keeps the pipes clean of biologicals, from the point after the chlorine injection to when it's used.

UV will kill anything incoming to the treatment plant, but it won't stop stuff from growing in the pipes between the treatment plant and where the water is used.

annienomousSeptember 25, 2007 4:27 PM

Chlorine is simple to produce. All you need is salt, water, and electricity. The water plant could easily produce their own chlorine onsite.

@Durable Ally: Water plants also need a reliable source of energy.

JoeSeptember 25, 2007 5:20 PM

Just saw an article on CNN about it - the really sad thing is that while it does say at the bottom that "[Cholera] can be prevented by treating drinking water with chlorine and improving hygiene conditions" the article fails to mention any reason why there is no chlorine anymore.

The article: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20974791/

AnonymousSeptember 25, 2007 6:09 PM

"In other words, the biggest damage from chlorine bombs -- as with so many terrorist attacks -- has come from overreaction to it."
I bet no-one within Al Qaeda dreamed that an airplane would turn out to have been such an effective tool, but look at how LEDs are shutting down modern cities like Boston these days. Seven years ago, the things would have been remanded to the DPW, not the bomb squad.

jawboneSeptember 25, 2007 8:38 PM

OMG! We restricted such things when we embargoed Saddam--and killed untold numbers of Iraqis, especially babies and infants.

Now, we're doing it all over again.

Can killing off most of the population of a nation be called genocide?

If not, what are we doing????

AndrewSeptember 25, 2007 9:28 PM

Makes you wonder. I was under the impression that occupying powers had responsibilities to civilian populations.

Anonymous CowardSeptember 26, 2007 1:48 AM

Roy, jawbone, you guys have said all that I wanted to...

@'Good post...' the entire Iraq embargo/ invasion is indefensible, so pls don't bother...

TheDoctorSeptember 26, 2007 2:40 AM

@Timmy:
Casualties is for american soldiers, those are still below 50.000.

Irakies are collateral damage, that doesn't count.

(if you find cynism, you can keep it)

German leaders of WWII were rightfully put to trial for the very same things the current american government has done to Irak.

Ari ManiatisSeptember 26, 2007 5:27 AM

@Good post
"The opposite was intended--to spare life. (We see this played out too much politically--as if the US, when removing a murderous tyrrant, intended all the terrorism when the intent was the opposite)."

If you take a step back and avoid your own political bias, perhaps the motivations become clearer. Was the US intent in Iraq really only to remove a tyrant? If so, where are the troops in Zimbabwe, Korea, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Perhaps there was a little more to this than altruistic US officials who want a better life for all Iraqis.

Perhaps the mandate to stop bombings which look bad on CNN overwhelm any consideration of side effects. Do you really believe that officials are ignorant of what chlorine is used for and what might happen if it is excluded from the country. Why do I suspect that the US 'green-zone' have their own water supply?

JurgenSeptember 26, 2007 5:52 AM

"I appreciate that the author didn't take the sad route of implying that this is exactly what was intended. The opposite was intended--to spare life."

It probably wasn't even the intention of the 'terrorists' to cut of the chlorine supply. They were probably just experimenting with new chemicals to see if they could make explosives out of something the US would be reluctant to restrict.

Bruce SchneierSeptember 26, 2007 6:11 AM

"I appreciate that the author didn't take the sad route of implying that this is exactly what was intended. The opposite was intended--to spare life."

Of course it wasn't intended. We're seeing all sorts of revenge effects from post-9/11 security measures, and for the most part they're unintended effects of not thinking things through clearly.

Good PostSeptember 26, 2007 10:25 AM

@Ari Maniatis: "If you take a step back and avoid your own political bias"

I just commended the author for giving an honest assessment without malice based on political bias. Your post if far more politically biased than mine. I don't know if you're the pot or the kettle.

I'd rather spend my energies doing something good than waste it on hurting political points.

As I feared, this thread has went downhill.

It's a shame.

Good PostSeptember 26, 2007 10:36 AM

@Bruce Schneier: "Of course it wasn't intented. We're seeing all sorts of revenge effects from post-9/11 security measures, and for the most part they're unintended effects of not thinking things through clearly."

I agree, and we need to use hindsight to try to get better forsight.

My real point is that when someone clouds a good point by making nefarious accusations against people's motives, and they know that the ascribed motive is false, it descredits the person making the point.

For example, I'm pretty conservative, but I'm not a fan of Bush. Having said that, I do understand why he has done some things even when I don't agree with them. So when I defend him against what I consider to be unfair accusations, some people debate me--which is great an I enjoy it. This blog has changed my mind on many things. However, when someone accuses me of drinking GOP Kool Aid, being an undercover agent for BushCo, or being an idiot, I tend to tune out their arguments because I know I'm none of those things. Whether it is a blogger, or the president, one's valid points are discarded if crazy accusations and insults are tossed in. That's my point.

Thanks for challenging my mind, Bruce. I appreciate it.

Martin HSeptember 26, 2007 11:21 AM

> "chlorine has killed exactly nobody"

Correct me if I am wrong, but use of chlorine in bombs is not limited to using it as primary payload. Those bombs indeed may be ineffective.

However, chlorine is important, if not essential, to produce a whole range of dangerous explosives, such as the flash powder, Armstrong's mixture, Cheddite, and more... so I believe that statement above is misleading.

rdjSeptember 26, 2007 3:37 PM

@Waterman:
> Why don't they use UV disinfection?

In areas with degraded infrastructure it's relatively useless. You can put clean water in one end of a pipe and it will come out contaminated at the other end because of undetected breaks and deposits in the pipe. A transported agent like chlorine is necessary to counter the contamination wherever it occurs.

Ari ManiatisSeptember 27, 2007 5:03 AM

@Good post

"My real point is that when someone clouds a good point by making nefarious accusations against people's motives, and they know that the ascribed motive is false, it descredits the person making the point."

Please reread my original post. Bruce has discussed a whole range of overreactions to the New York attacks. From overzealous Boston police, to wiretapping US citizens and ineffective airline security, through to disastrous foreign policy. Now you can ascribe these decisions to only several things: incompetence, malice or a little of both.

Note that I'm not talking about the type of malice which which you might describe a fifth grade child who pushes another child off the swings. This is a more subtle thing, tied into xenophobia and fear. Imagine that chlorine bombs had been found in Los Angeles and that authorities had decided the best way to alleviate the security concern was to stop chlorine being used to treat water and sewerage. Imagine that cholera outbreaks resulted throughout LA- would such a situation be tolerated for long?

The sort of malice at work here slips in quietly. An official in the security division issues an order to ban chlorine because their job is security and not water, and at certain level, they don't really care too much about the implications. Cause and effect are removed just enough from each other so that it "isn't their job". Certainly incompetence is a possibility: no one explained to them what chlorine was used for or what might happen if they didn't have it. Or they decided that the reduction in one type of bombing attack was worth a few lives lost to disease, because they didn't understand the possible effects of cholera. Or, mixing in just a little of that malice, without a conscious thought, reduction of bombing attacks which are reported on CNN and effect US soldiers was just that more important than a little extra disease in a dusty backward country where the victims are remote and unconnected.

So, I'm not saying that officials act in this way because they wake up in the morning and think "what evil can I do today?". But rather that a whole collection of ideas have become mainstream in US politics and decision making:

* Iraqis had something to do with 9/11
* Iraq is better off now
* Al qaeda was based in Iraq
* American style administration is superior to whatever backward systems Iraq has/had
* American style democracy and politics are transferrable universally
* We are protecting the homeland by fighting the terrorists overseas
* Or even some confused ideology about protecting Israel and moving toward the second coming.

Many of these things translate into nothing more than a general unease within the western population about Arabs or Muslims. Perhaps at dinner parties we say that this should not stand and that we believe in the principals of equality, but still feel uneasy when we are allocated a Muslim doctor. There is a US administration who decided (for some reasons still not clear), not to follow through on the widely applauded invasion of Afghanistan. Was it oil? Was it something else? Perhaps we will never know, but the case of Valerie Plume makes it clear that WMD was a cover story for the purposes of the UN, and that any evidence to the contrary was quickly suppressed.

I've strayed a little from the chlorine we are here to discuss, but question of motives I think is crucial. Just as with hurricane Katrina, certainly no officials wanted people to die, but they certainly cared less about some than others.

Whenever you have people in power who are emotionally removed from those effected by their decisions, bad choices will happen.

Brian SSeptember 27, 2007 1:27 PM

@ anonymous

"I bet no-one within Al Qaeda dreamed that an airplane would turn out to have been such an effective tool, but look at how LEDs are shutting down modern cities like Boston these days. Seven years ago, the things would have been remanded to the DPW, not the bomb squad. "

That's the thing. Assymetric warfare, Low intensity conflict, guerrilla warfare, (insert other names for it here) is fairly easy. You don't *have* to think everything though to mess stuff up. But you do have to think it through carefully to try to avoid / prevent / correct things once they get messed up.

One can speculate all day on the amount of intent or knowledge that the terrorists may have had or may not have had. That isn't really important. They can just keep trying things until one works, and then let our own poorly thought out responses and over-reactions take the job over from there.

That's where we get to Maple Street.

If a sufficently motivated person in a car with little regard for personal safety wanted to disrupt traffic in most any major city, how hard would it be? Now how hard would it be to prevent that same action reliably?

waterdogtxMarch 30, 2008 11:03 PM

If we as water operators, didn't properly chlorinate our water as required, and hundreds or millions of people started getting sick( god forbid anyone dies) then what kind of a story would you be telling. First we would be serving time. I guess what I'm implying is, Chlorine is the best that we have to work with. Sure there are some risk, trihalomethane's and haa5's, that are known to be related to cancer. But lets not forget that chlorine KILLS harmful bacteria that is known to KILL. Chlorine the lesser of two evils......

Likes2LiveApril 2, 2008 3:22 PM

Interesting comment, waterdogtx. I'd have preferred that you give some explanation for why chlorine was "the best that we have to work with." I understand that it costs money to convert a facility from chlorine treatment to something else, but if you are building a new water treatment plant, why not use UV, ozone, bleach created outside of Iraq, or any number of other options? I think we can all agree that the Iraqi people deserve to have clean water, and that chlorine kills most microbes very well. I think most people assume (if they even know how water is cleaned) that it's the only way to treat water. As a water operator, what problem do you have with the efficacy of those alternatives? In an area like Iraq, it just seems to me like a no-brainer.

Joe GautierOctober 25, 2010 11:14 AM

The problem with people in these positions is that they're not in the technology loop at all. I've had engineers look me straight in the eye and tell me that 4 Harvard PhDs can't be right. "Look at the test results", I tell them. They just shake their heads and walk away. Forest...trees. Anything?

We have so many new technological advances in water treatment that it makes these "Water experts" look like clowns. If you don't have all the answers, it better to say "I don't know" than to publish a re-printed article from 1897 and put the weight of your title and reputation on the information. Attend a conference...ask some questions...ever heard of google? Stop spouting what you do not understand. It makes all their PhDs look like they were purchased as Spencer's Gifts.

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