Environmental Reporting Collective

Choking Kurdistan

How oil and gas burning is suffocating minorities in northern Iraq

By Tom Brown, Christina Last, Stella Martany, Alannah Travers & Kuek Ser Kuang Keng

Eight hundred metres away from one of the largest oil wells in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Ali Hassan can’t sleep - the oil flares lighting up the sky outside his window keep him bed bound.

A nasty smell is spreading through Khabat, on the road to Mosul, as the flaring intensifies, and some residents are struggling to breathe.

“It gets inside the houses, even when you block the windows and doors,” Hassan said.*

His parents are coughing from the fumes. They were sleeping on the roof — as is common in Iraq during the summer — but the smoke from the flaring forces them back inside. With the electricity generator dying, they are often forced to sit in the dark, with the orange flames on the distant hills their only source of light.

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Questioned on the study, one official told Rudaw English that the government remained committed to the policy to end gas flaring by the start of 2023, and that Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani was personally encouraging of the policy, but could not say what consequences companies who continue flaring into the new year might face.

The Region’s flaring directive deadline, which would decrease the risk of respiratory illness and premature births, is fast approaching. Last month, the minister who issued the order, Kamal Atroshi, resigned from his role as Minister of Natural Resources; a role covered in the interim by the KRG’s Minister of Electricity Kamal Muhammad Salih.

Russia burns the most amount of natural gas in the world, flaring off 24.88 billion cubic metres per year as of 2020 according to World Bank data, with Iraq following closely behind with 17.37 billion cubic metres.

But according to our analysis, Iraq's population on average lives much closer to flaring sites than Russia’s.

Since October 2018, we found that the number of people in Iraq living within a 1km radius of more than 10 flaring events was 1.19 million. In Russia, only 275,000 experienced the same level of exposure across the same time period.

Russia’s oil refineries are often in remote locations, spread out across arctic tundras. In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, however, major cities and towns are more commonly situated close to the flares ⁠— leaving their populations at greater risk of exposure.

Flaring is a convenient way to deal with the waste product known as associated petroleum gas.

Methane, the largest proponent of the associated gas burned off during the flaring, has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.

The UN estimates that reducing methane by 45% within the decade could prevent 260,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, and 25 million tonnes of crop losses.

The associated gas, if stored and processed, can be used to heat homes in the future — sold directly into the market — or used on site.

Much of the excess gas produced by oil rigs, such as those stationed far out at sea, for example, partially run on the gas they themselves produce — cutting out any need to burn it off.

But up-front investment in either storing the gas or additional pipelines to transport it is needed in all these cases. If the infrastructure doesn’t exist, like in oil facilities across the Region, the gas must be flared in order to maintain production levels.

According to some estimates, about 70 percent of Iraq’s natural gas is lost to flaring — in many cases burning off gas that could have been used during the winter, if it had been stored ahead of time.

The result of the flaring is high amounts of fine particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less (PM 2.5) in diameter, small enough to enter the lungs. The increase of PM 2.5 has been linked with respiratory diseases in the region.

While satellites cannot measure PM 2.5 directly, they can identify aerosol optical depth (AOD) — which acts as a proxy indicating particulate matter around flaring sites.

Using AOD as a proxy, we found that all of the areas surrounding Erbil we measured were at least seven-times the limit of particulate matter recommended as safe by the WHO.

Asthma, allergies, lung fibrosis and stillbirths are all associated with the practice, but the communities who live near the flares are frightened most by the risk of cancer.

Several chemicals released through flaring, such as benzene, are named by the American Cancer Society as known carcinogens; substances that promote the formation of cancer.

Long-term exposure to benzene harms the bone marrow. Those exposed feel increasingly weak and tired as their red blood cell count decreases. Bruising and bleeding becomes more common, with healing taking longer.

Ivan, a local doctor working near Erbil who did not wish his second name to be reported, said he believes flaring to be the leading cause of respiratory illness in the Region.

His own sister is herself a patient, suffering from cancer he believes to be the result of living close to the flares. Many residents are forced to travel to Baghdad for expensive treatment, or further afield to Turkey or the Netherlands. In early June, staff at Sulaimani’s cancer hospital, in the east of the Kurdistan Region, warned of medicine shortages pushing patients to the brink. Most of the hospital's medical devices are broken and no money has been allocated for repairs.

Women living near natural gas and oil wells that burnt off excess gas through flaring are 50% more at risk of premature birth than women with no exposure, found researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, in partnership with UCLA scientists.

In a sample of children younger than 15 emitted to hospital in the Region, Global Pediatric Health found respiratory viruses to be almost twice as prevalent as in neighbouring Iran.


Near Kawergosk, where over 8,000 Syrian refugees live - the majority of whom share an ethnic Kurdish identity, drawing from Qamishli, Jazeera, and Hasaka in the country’s northeast provinces - the Erbil oil refinery is operated by the KAR Group. According to UNHCR figures, 47.1 percent, almost half of the entire camp, are under 18 as of May 2022.

We come across one of the local schools, and children rush up to greet us. But before we can answer any of their questions, we’re rescued by another passerby: Ahmed Khalid.*

Khalid greets us with a smile, and immediately takes us to his home, a simple building with bare walls and doshaks (mattresses) on the floor.

Back in 2013 when the refugee camp was set up, it was all tents. For almost a decade the refugees of Kawergosk lived in rows of blue and white plastic, before being slowly replaced by cement blocks and cold stone. “When we first arrived, we didn’t even have a tent to sleep under,” said Khalid.

Back in 2013 when the refugee camp was set up, it was all tents. For almost a decade the Syrians of Kawergosk lived in rows of blue and white plastic, before being slowly replaced by cement blocks and cold stone. ‘When we first arrived, we didn’t even have a tent to sleep under’, he said.

Without a degree, he had few options other than to try to continue with his studies in Iraq. Saving up $1,500 in application fees — an enormous sum of money for a local inhabitant, let alone a refugee — he applied for a scholarship in the Iraqi university in Sulemania, and won the offer to study veterinary medicine.

But even after he won the scholarship, the Iraqi government blocked him from continuing his studies due to his refugee status. The government also refused to reimburse him the $1,500, losing the family their savings.

To help feed his family, he practises veterinary medicine on the side without a licence, terrified the authorities will one day catch him.

Through his veterinary work, he is able to receive $150 every few months. The last time he received a pay cheque like that was November 2021. He spends most of his money buying medicine for the pets and animals.

Now, the temporary accommodation has evolved into a small city, with residents running almost every kind of business out of their own homes and in shared spaces. Before the war, Khalid was a university student in Syria, but civil war broke out before he could finish.

We were introduced to the mother of his family, who works in the health sector. When Covid-19 hit, she vaccinated an estimated 5,000 children in one week. She told us that she was vaccinating babies between one and four days old.

When the work began, she started encountering more children with birth defects. Many are stillborn in the camps, but those who reached the age of vaccination would often have health defects; a missing valve, or with an atrial septal defect - a hole in the heart. Many had a condition which prevented them from crying, and many more had difficulty breathing as soon as they were born.

She had been a nurse in Syria before the war. The family showed us a picture of their house on fire. Smoke billowed out of their family home after shelling from Turkey, with their fleeing neighbours sending them a photo right after the attack.

After taking a dangerous journey from the Turkish-Syrian border, the family arrived in Iraq. Nearly a decade later, they’re still there — unable to return home for fear of shelling, kidnapping, and with no home to return to.

Because of her  nursing experience, she worked around the camp in the health sector helping to alleviate suffering. When Covid-19 hit the refugees, Hamza was on the frontlines. In one week, she vaccinated an estimated 5,000 children. After work, the mother Hamza would volunteer to deliver awareness sessions in the camp about Covid, such as social distancing, PPE and hygiene talks.

No governments or NGOs sponsored the awareness campaign — it was led entirely by Hamza and others like her in the camp. ‘We wanted to present something to the camp, and we will always be proud of it.’


Iraq’s minorities in the north are bearing the brunt of the pollution. One group of people who frequently visit an area close one of the flaring sites are the Yazidis, a minority group who mostly fled to the Region when the Islamic State launched its brutal ethno-religious genocide against their community and homeland of Sinjar in August 2014.

When Yazidis pray, they face towards the sun, which shines out over the holy site of Lalish, a 4,000-year-old holy site where the Sufis say all life first began. But during routine maintenance, the sun is often obscured by smoke carried from the oil flares, sometimes engulfing entire villages.

“Our religion is our nature, and they are destroying our nature,” said Luqman Sulaiman, the Lalish head of media.

It used to snow in Lalish, the holy site of Yazidism, a 7,000-year-old religion, but it has been years since the saw-toothed roofs of the ancient temples were touched by anything other than acid rain. A Christian whose church is destroyed may find refuge in another. Likewise, a Muslim can pray in many mosques. But Yazidis have Lalish.

“For us as Yazidis, we don’t have another temple,” Sulaiman said, standing in Lalish with a lit flare visible from the holy site. “This is our only temple in all the world. We don’t have another place to go.”

The Yazidi religion has no prophet, and no holy text. In it, the god that created the world is absent from its internal affairs, leaving his dominion in the care of seven angels, the leader of which is called Malak Ṭāʾūs, or the Peacock Angel.

In the Yazidi creation myth, adapted from a pre-Zoroastrian faith for Isalmic ideology, the Peacock Angel refuses to bow before Adam when given a command by God. In Yazidi literature, the command was in fact a test of loyalty, as God had previously commanded that the angels worship no other being than their creator.

The refusal to bow showed God that the Peacock Angel is the most loyal of the seven. But the tale became reinterpreted in Islamic literature, which describes Iblis — the devil in Islam — refusing to bow before Adam and being thrown out of heaven.

Many in the Isalmic tradition have subsequently viewed the Yazidi reverence of the Peacock Angel as akin to devil worship, because of the similarity of the stories, resulting in massacres and forced conversions throughout their shared history.

“They kill us because they say we do not worship God, but we came with the word God 500 years before them,” said Sulaiman. “We knew God before they did.”

Now, only around one million Yazidis remain, yet all aspire to pilgrimage to Lalish one day as the site where life first began, with many travelling from Armenia, Russia and Germany. It is the same site now being threatened by oil exploration.

Two oil fields surround Lalish, the Atrush oil field and the Shaikan oil field — with three separate oil and gas companies operating there, none of which responded to a request for comment.

Atrush sees 80% of its oil operations undertaken by TAQA, an Emirati energy firm.

Shaikan is operated by Bermuda-registered, London-listed Gulf Keystone Petroleum (75%), an oil firm created by private equity investors, with Hungary's MOL Group (20%) making up the remainder.


When the oil companies need to clean out the machinery, a process which covers the valley in black smoke, sometimes engulfing whole settlements, they pay villagers $50 per day to leave their homes while the maintenance is ongoing. The cleaning happens every two or three months.

Most of the workers are foreigners, with the oil companies bringing in workers from the Philippines or India three or four times what locals would earn. Kurds graduate from University with degrees in oil engineering and find themselves unable to find work, leaving the local population without any benefit from living right by the oil refineries.

For simply living next to the flares, the villagers receive nothing. But many Yazidi villagers are employed as guards, receiving salaries of around $1,500 per month, around three-to-four times higher than what the locals could make elsewhere. Because of the job opportunities, many residents are hesitant to criticise the gas flaring, added Sulaiman.

“In the end, Yazidis only get the smoke,” Sulaiman concluded.



On a particularly hot day, when the water has receded, black patches of oil can be seen.

“When I swim here, I see dead fish floating in the oil,” said Hassan, standing atop the riverbank and pointing to the dry plains.

Hassan is a follower of Yarsanism, a minority religion in Iraq that believes in reincarnation. Beside him, dead eucalyptus trees lay barren in the sun, stripped of their greenery. Trucks and transport vehicles drive past, kicking up dust into the air.

Iraqi healthcare is poor, with hospitals constantly overwhelmed. It wasn’t until Covid hit the Region that they realised how bad the asthma rates had gotten, said Rebin Mohammed, a local environmentalist.*

“Cancer rates are going to increase in the future because of the flaring spots surrounding here,” said Mohammed. “The government is not forcing them to start giving back to the environment and the community.”

In more developed countries companies use filters to stop the smoke from reaching the towns or the villages. Here, there’s no pressure for the companies to protect the local inhabitants — making operational costs cheaper than in other parts of the world.

“All the damage it’s doing now is going to be five times more in 10-11 years after they surround us with oil fields,” said Goran.

The local doctors almost always refer residents to a hospital in Erbil, the nearest city with basic health facilities. No ambulances are available, so patients have to either find a relative, or drive themselves.

With fuel prices rising, many decide they are unable to afford the cost.

‘We will just vanish, and this place will disappear, said Goran. ‘Our ancestors lived here, and we love this land so we have to stay here. We are sadly used to it.’

When interviewed, the local municipality official for Khabat ⁠— Rebaz Qasim Mirani ⁠— blamed the traffic on the nearby road for the nearby pollution, dismissing the flaring as the leading cause.

‘Each time it is a different excuse, the issue is bigger than him,’ said Goran. ‘People are scared.’

Several health officials and doctors who had agreed to speak with us about respiratory problems from gas flaring dropped out last minute. Many would be putting themselves at personal risk, they said.

Asked if any progress had been made with phasing out flaring, he said: ‘It hasn’t changed at all. We know because we live here and we always see the same smoke every day.’

Gwer Road

The flaring around Gwer Road, the road connecting Erbil to Mosul and federal Iraq, is some of the most severe in Kurdistan.

The KAR Group, a Kurdish engineering firm, is only one of the oil firms operating within this region — but it is closely tied with the domestic politics of the region.

Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, talks took place between US and Israeli officials to discuss exporting Kurdish oil to Europe through Turkey, as an alternative to Russian supplies.

The KAR Group is said to be working to develop the gas export pipeline, according to Reuters, in the hopes of easing the continent away from reliance on Russian gas — something which the group denies.

Such a deal would cut out Iran, which has been pinning its hopes on using its oil as a bargaining chip to loosen the grip of US sanctions on its economy.

As a response, Iran has allegedly been trying to intimidate the KAR Group into backing down from the talks, with several missiles striking a villa owned by KAR Group CEO Baz Karim Barzanji on March 13.

With tensions escalating between Iran and Western powers, the US and its allies have been looking at Turkey as a regional power broker, using it to supply oil to Europe in a bid to wean off dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Kurdistan is becoming more strategically important as a result, signalling a green light to further oil exploration across the region.

Norwegian oil and gas firm DNO ASA operates across Kurdistan, with the Petroleum Pipeline Corporation, known as BOTAS, holding a 16% stake in DNO through its subsidiary Turkish Energy Company (TEC) with the Kurdistan government holding another 20%.

The Shewashan oil field near Erbil is operated by Gas Plus Khalakan (GPK), a joint partnership between NewAge, Range Energy Resources and Black Gold Khalakan, with a shell headquarters in Jersey and links to Turkish billionaire and media tycoon Aydın Doğan.

Range’s sole asset is a 49.9% equity stake in New Age Al Zarooni 2, which in turn owns a 50% equity stake in Gas Plus Khalakan. Gas Plus Khalakan holds an 80% interest in the Khalakan sharing contract that governs production activities in the Shewashan Field.

The Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq holds the remaining 20% interest under the contract.


Almost every oil field in Kurdistan has a 20% stake held by the Kurdistan government, which negotiates its own oil contracts, overseen by sitting prime minister Masrour Barzani — part of the family which has ruled Kurdistan for decades.

In her 2018 book Pipe Dreams: The Plundering of Iraq’s Oil Wealth, investigative reporter Erin Banco explains how the ruling Barzani family — linked to the KAR Group — requires bonus payments via the product-sharing agreements to win contracts.

Wikileaks identified the KAR Group as ‘allied to one or more non-competing "godfathers" in the local ruling party’, later naming the Barzani family as the upper-echelons of KRG leaders.

The prime minister purchased a property in Miami worth $18.3 million via an anonymous Delaware shell company, the incorporation documents revealed.

Cowboy Drugstore, the US magazine which first revealed the purchase, called Kurdistan: ‘a hereditary monarchy in all but name’.

The Russian state-owned oil companies, in particular, have hoisted up Kurdistan’s economy. Rosneft began pouring billions into the region in 2017 after securing exploration contracts, and purchasing 60% of the Kirkuk–Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, an oil export system reaching over almost a thousand kilometres to connect Kurdistan with Turkey.

Kurdistan's existence as an autonomous state is under threat from a ruling by the Iraqi federal court, questioning its legitimacy in negotiating its own oil contracts, which it uses to sell oil through the Kirkuk–Ceyhan Oil pipeline.

If the KRG were an independent country, the amount of oil and gas reserves would place it among the top 10 oil-rich countries in the world. But federal Iraq is seeking to bring the autonomous region, and its oil contracts, back under the control of its national company, the State Organization for Marketing of Oil (SOMO).

Questioned on the slow transition from gas flaring, one KRG official suggested that such “headaches” with Baghdad, and subsequent uncertainty, was in some part to blame.

For its part, Turkey prefers to keep the oil-rich region autonomous and outside the reach of Iran, a regional rival, but it also seeks to destroy any hiding place for members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), against which it has been waging a brutal war within Turkey for over forty years.

The Region has suffered airstrikes and missile attacks from its northern neighbour in recent months, leaving the country caught between regional power brokers.

In Operation Claw-Lock, Turkey aims to eliminate the PKK leadership, launching an incursion into the Region’s northern mountainous areas once again in recent months, in a move that would arguably also shore up its oil interests.

Shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the KAR group signed an agreement to expand a natural gas pipeline to Duhok for domestic production, later adding that the pipeline would be extended to Turkey.

Following Europe’s scramble for alternative energy suppliers, Prime Minister Barzani stated in March that Kurdish gas would ultimately be exported to Europe, speaking at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Forum in Dubai.

PKK-affiliated groups have previously claimed responsibility for attacking the Ceyhan - Kirkuk, with Turkey likely viewing the elimination of the PKK leadership as vital in light of the renewed interests in its oil exports.

Transportation infrastructure from oil facilities in the Region lags behind the rest of the world. KRG ministers are aware of the problem, but cite poor infrastructure and reliance on foreign oil markets. The US is diverting some funding towards the issue, hoping to shift Iraq away from reliance on Iran’s oil imports, which undermines international sanctions.

The KRG stands by its commitment to phase out flaring by 2023, but so far companies are projected to have a similar output to last year or the year before.

Some Progress

Yet there is hope for a future free of the smoke choking Kurdistan.

Glasgow-headquartered energy firm Aggreko recently completed one of the largest flare gas-to-power projects in the Middle East.

The plant is located near the Sarqala field, Garmian block, South East Kurdistan, and has cut flaring by a third.

‘There is no technical justification for routine flaring left – and the economic and practical justifications are shrinking by the day,’ said Aggreko.

While the plant represents only a fraction of the natural gas that is pumped into the air around Erbil every day, incremental changes are being made.

The project is proof not only that structural changes are possible but also that they are economically viable - the plant is able to sustain itself through using the gas it would otherwise have flared, reducing maintenance costs.

Although our research demonstrates Kurdistan is not on target to phase out flaring by the end of 2022, the regional government has made some progress when compared with federal Iraq.

Rising gas prices – threatening economic shock in the rest of the world – could provide an incentive for oil and gas companies to provide infrastructure in Kurdistan that stores the associated gas instead of flaring it.

But the cost in health has already been paid by many Iraqis. While future oil companies may be forced to adhere to the practice of curtailing gas flaring for economic reasons, the precedent of maintaining production levels at the expense of local residents has already been set.

The KRG has until 2023 to meet its commitment to phasing out flaring across Kurdistan.

*Not his real name