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'Living under a black sky': Iraq's post-conflict environmental challenges

Smoke rises after an oil spill caused an explosion in Iraq [Wim Zwijnenburg/Twitter]

The departure of Daesh from various regions of Iraq has been a reason for the international community to rejoice in recent months, particularly for those invested in tackling the numerous human rights abuses and international law violations that took place during the self-declared caliphate.

But as the country looks towards reconstruction, one major development concern is being overlooked, according to the Dutch NGO PAX, which released a new report "Living under a black sky: Conflict pollution and environmental health concerns in Iraq" at the UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi earlier this month.

"The report demonstrates that the environment should be looked into properly; this tends to fall off the post-conflict legal structure agenda because the environment is normally associated with bees and butterflies and trees," says Wim Zwijnenburg, Programme Leader for Humanitarian Disarmament at PAX and an author of the report.

"What we are trying to demonstrate in the report is that the environment is literally for people to live in – it's about the soil, the water they drink, the air they breathe and if that's being affected it can have severe consequences for local communities."

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The extent of the damage caused by recent oil spills, water pollution and heavy bombardment has complicated already existing issues in many of Iraq's provinces. In the past 30 years Iraq has witnessed four wars and without adequate management large swaths of the country are at risk of becoming unliveable. The report, evidenced by consultations with numerous humanitarian organisations as well as the UN and NASA, calls for the international community to take action and raise the environment as part of the post-conflict agenda.

Spills and smoke

A large proportion of the environmental challenges that Iraq now faces are the result of the mismanagement of oil during the conflict.

Refineries were already a source of pollution due to inadequate governance and control measures and as Daesh militants took over oil-rich regions their attempts to exploit the resource for their own gains only resulted in further damage. Backyard oil refinery has caused significant damage to the surrounding ecosystem and civilians who worked in the makeshift factories. PAX has identified 20 clusters, containing more than 1,600 artisanal oil refineries, mostly in Ninewa and Kirkuk Governorates.

Oil spills were consequently common, decimating the potential of agricultural farmland and threatening the livelihoods of local communities. The report documents spills at four oil refinery sites: Al-Qayyarah, the Amrin Mountains, sites at Kirkuk and Iraq's largest refinery, Baiji.

"In 2014 and 2013 as well, before the rise of [Daesh] as a formed group, they carried out attacks on infrastructure that led to [oil] spills. Early in 2014 there was a big attack on Baji refinery which created the 70 kilometre long oil spill; to limit the impact of the spill on the river that was going towards Baghdad, they set it on fire," Zwijnenburg says.

A satellite image capturing the oil spill which caused an explosion in Iraq [NASA Johnson/Flickr]

Oil fires are known to release harmful substances into the air, including sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead. Not only does this further impact the environment in the form of acid rain and acidification of soil, but the health of local civilian populations can also be profoundly affected, causing them to suffer a range of severe short-term and long-term health problems.

The weaponisation of water

The polluting of Iraq's sources of fresh water was another issue addressed in the report, one that again infringes upon civilian life as much as it impacts the physical environment.

The lack of adequate water cleaning and sewage facilities has resulted in the widespread contamination of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, creating numerous negative impacts for local residents and their livelihoods. According to Zwijnenburg the water insecurity and mismanagement that plagued Iraq before the latest conflict has also contributed to current challenges.

"We had conversations with the Iraqi scientific community, both in Iraq and abroad, and they also raised all these issues around pollution, particularly the lack of government oversight and environmental regulation," he says.

Such issues were only complicated with the arrival of Daesh. Subsequent oil spills have severely impacted access to local sources of water; after the Baiji oil spill, residents downstream on the Tigris were told not to use their tap water for three days and cities like Baghdad closed off their water supply from the river until the slick had passed.

Read: Iraq and Iran sign Kirkuk oil export contract

Militants also intentionally damaged dams, hydroelectric power plants and barrages with the aim of using the environment as a weapon of war. Even as the group retreated, Daesh blew up bridges, which then blocked canals, and destroyed pumping stations, disrupting entire communities' access to water. Daesh militants also strategically contaminated rivers to prevent them from being used by their opponents. The group is known to have dumped at least 100 corpses in the Tigris, making is unusable for government forces and local residents alike.

The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources estimates the damage caused amounts to around $600 million.

Urban destruction

Drone footage released last month of a now evacuated Mosul conveyed the depth of the devastation the city has witnessed in the war against Daesh. PAX's report also addresses the decimation of urban areas, citing an estimation that puts the cost of transporting the ten million tonnes of debris out of Mosul alone at $250 million. Such a situation is replicated in other Iraqi cities, including Ramadi and Fallujah, with whole neighbourhoods reduced to rubble.

The report highlights the long-term effects not only of the destruction of public infrastructure, but also the wreckage of electric and water networks, which release hazardous toxins when damaged. The vast quantities of munitions that have been fired in urban areas, as well as their explosive impact, could also have long-term health and environmental consequences.

Landmines pose a further issue. Whilst the US has provided licensed de-mining agencies with their targeting information to facilitate the disposal of any unexploded bombs, authorities have little to go on when predicting what weapons may have been left by Daesh militants.

Read: US agency to help Iraq recover from Daesh despite Trump aid cuts

"There is a big discussion in the mining community as how to deal with IEDs [improvised explosive devices], there are usually landmines or other bombs and missiles. There's a lot of technical know-how, how they work, how to disarm them, and with more complex IEDs it's always tricky, they can be booby trapped," Zwijnenburg explains.

Industrial sites are another obstacle reconstruction efforts will face. Both the coalition and Daesh militants targeted factories and munitions sites during the conflict, often releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. In 2016 Daesh set fire to stockpiles of sulphur at the Mishiraq plant, resulting in the hospitalisation of over 1,000 people, 20 of whom died. Assessing the damage and restoring the environment to its previous levels will take time, money and expertise.

Moving forward: creating an environmental agenda

Launched at the UN Environmental Assembly earlier this month, PAX's report facilitated the adoption of an Iraq-sponsored resolution that urged states to minimise and mitigate the health and environmental consequences of pollution caused by armed conflicts and terrorism.

In the short term Zwijnenburg points to the efforts that will be made to mobilise funding for the reconstruction of Iraq on the part of the World Bank, of which the environmental clean-up will be one component.

But he also emphasises the importance of clarity on this issue for future peace building efforts, citing the result of a survey PAX conducted in association with the UN Development Programme, in which local civilians are interviewed about their perception of local health risks.

Read: Iraq Sunni powers refuse elections before return of 3m IDPs

"It was clear people were really concerned; they lived under smoke from burning oil wells for eight months, it was clear there were concerns over health risks, socio-economic opportunities because of the degradation of agricultural land and loss of livestock, and also calls for medical assistance, says Zwijnenburg.

"If the concerns over environmental degradation and pollution are not addressed, if people do not get reliable information on the real risks, it can be used by political groups to mobilise support against the government … there is potential there for exploitation of grievances," he adds.

PAX wants more organisations and governments to invest in making sure the environment remains on the post-conflict agenda.

"It's interesting because we are talking about conflict in an environmental setting here [the UN Environmental Assembly], but what we also need to have is talking about environment in a conflict setting, for example in the UN General Assembly in New York, which is where usually all these issues related to weapons and military activities are discussed. Because those are different kinds of diplomats, those are the diplomats who deal with weapons control, proliferation, impacts etc. So we should also engage with them from an environmental perspective," Zwijnenburg concludes.

International OrganisationsInterviewsIraqMiddle EastUN
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