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Accidental Spread of Contaminated Land Poses Deadly Threat to Safe Areas

Basra is rapidly expanding and rehabilitating itself, driven by oil wealth and population growth, but faces significant risks from land contaminated with unexploded ordnances, which the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has been clearing since 2003. Despite progress, accidents continue due to improper soil collection, emphasizing the need for increased education on explosive risks and stricter regulations to ensure safe construction practices.

Posted on 28 May 2024

As you drive through the city of Basra and the surrounding villages, one thing is abundantly clear, the city is rehabilitating itself and expanding at a rapid rate. The oil-rich area brings an abundance of livelihood opportunities and so the city has seen a large increase to its population in recent years. In addition, many long-term residents are keen to build new homes or improve their current residences.  

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has worked tirelessly in Basra since 2003 to clear land contaminated with mines and unexploded remnants of war, many dating back more than 40 years to the conflict between Iran and Iraq. Once this land has gone through rigorous surveys, clearance operations and quality assurance checks, the land is released and handed back to the local government.    

There remains more than 1 billion square metres of land to clear in Basra alone[i].  Once filled with palms, farms and villages, this area has remained barren, largely uninhabited and contaminated with high numbers of explosive ordnance ever since. 

Given the continued large-scale contamination across Basra, DRC teams also conduct vital explosive ordnance risk education (EORE) to ensure residents understand the persistent risks posed by these deadly weapons on their safety, how to recognise them and to introduce safe behaviours to mitigate any accidents that may be caused. 

When land is released and handed back to local authorities, it is used for a variety of purposes including agriculture and housing development projects.  In recent years, DRC has witnessed a concerning trend; in order to rebuild or rehabilitate homes, many people have been collecting soil from open areas that are yet to be cleared.  

This is spreading deadly, unexploded ordnance to civilian areas. Villages and land that have been cleared and should guarantee safety from these devices are once again becoming contaminated.  

The tragic consequences of this practise are already manifesting. Numerous incidents have occurred where unexploded ordnance have revealed themselves during construction efforts or worse, have remained hidden in villages until they are detonated.  

One incident saw a 14-year-old girl lose her sight, an arm and a leg. The girl frequented a private tutors house regularly, but one day she stepped on a landmine right outside the house. The tutor had used land from a contaminated area to build the foundations of her home in a well-populated village. The deadly device had remained hidden for months before the incident.  

This is sadly just one of numerous incidents DRC has been alerted to in recent years.  


The Government has assigned areas of land that have been cleared of contamination from which residents can take soil for free, yet people remain unaware of this or do not understand the risks of taking soil from other nearby areas.  

Despite a significant reduction in contaminated land in Basra over the last 20 years, there continue to be injuries and deaths due to unexploded ordnances. These horrific incidents underline the urgent need for action.  

As the war fades into the history of Iraq, people have become increasingly complacent to living with landmines. In addition, the younger generation are often unaware of the threats, as are newly arrived residents from other areas of Iraq.  

Educating the population to signs and risks of these weapons has never been more important. An urgent increase in EORE sessions is of upmost importance to ensure Basra can continue to rebuild and grow, whilst ensuring the safety of all citizens.  

Information campaigns that could include bill boards  or social media campaigns, could also work to alert communities to the risks of contaminated land and help to ensure that only soil from cleared areas is used for construction.  In addition, measures to mark contaminated land, as well as better regulations for companies involved in supplying and selling soil could also aid efforts to protect communities. 

DRC continues clearing the land in Basra  inch by inch, clearing unexploded ordnances of war and educating populations of their risk, with the project supported by the U.S Department of State.  

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