Hungry? Wait a year while we increase oil production


By Paul Eedle

Like this story? Donít like it? Tell Paul

Hi-tech in a kind of 70s way! A partially repaired control panel in Rumaila oilfield. You may have  as much power in the computer youíre using to read this!

Whenever my car stops at traffic lights in Baghdad, a couple of kids in dirty gallabiyas run up to the window asking for money, whimpering that they're hungry.

Three years after the UN allowed Iraq to start exporting oil again, and use the money for food and medicine, a quarter of adults and a third of children are still malnourished.

Iraq's once giant oil industry will take years to get back on its feet - and it has barely started. Under the first 'oil for food' plan which began at the end of 1996, Iraq is already producing about as much crude oil as it can. The US-led coalition forces that drove Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 reduced most of Iraq's oil industry to heaps of black and twisted metal in the desert. Increasing production means large-scale repairs and rebuilding which will take months. Some large items of equipment take six to 12 months to deliver.

But touring Iraq's southern oilfields,
it's amazing Iraq is producing even its current 2.3 million barrels a day, let alone anything approaching its pre-war level of 3.5 million barrels a day. At one oil storage tank farm in the Zubair oilfield, coalition air forces had destroyed 13 out of 16 tanks. In the South Rumaila oilfield nearby, a water injection plant was entirely wrecked and a gas compression plant was working at half capacity after limited repairs.

(Water is injected into oil reservoirs to maintain pressure on the crude oil and keep it gushing out of the wells. The crude oil often contains bubbles of natural gas, which are separated out and used for power).

The man who took me round, Mohammad Saeed, was actually the engineer in charge of Iraq's two offshore oil terminals 50 kilometres out in the Gulf. He sounded
half proud and half in despair at the makeshift ways in which the Southern Oil Company was keeping the oil flowing out of Mina al-Bakr terminal. Iraq's second terminal, Khor al-Amaya, is totally out of action.

Mina al-Bakr used to be computerised. Now the computer is out completely. We are in a very rough way. It is not safe, in fact," he said. "For a few years we repaired it - we had some spare parts left. But we just repaired it to a certain level. At least it is working, but it is not 100 per cent reliable."

How long, UN, how long?

Step 1: agree production level

Step 2: increase production

Saeed added: "We don't have a reliable control room. Some of the loading arms are not working. The fire fighting system is not completely efficient. Accommodation is very poor. So many items have to be renewed."

The fact is, the UN and Iraq are no longer talking about a humanitarian programme to stop Iraqis starving.
They're negotiating the first steps towards reconstruction of the entire Iraqi economy - with every step subject to argument or veto by the Western governments that won the Gulf War and are still determined to try to remove President Saddam Hussein.

Any bets how long it will take even to agree this programme, let alone implement it? My guess is it could
easily take a year from now to start increasing the oil for food programme. Those kids could still be knocking on car windows when the millenium dawns.


 Art and Escapism
 At Ease