Breakdown in Environmental Services

Where they exist prior to the outbreak of hostilities, basic environmental services such as municipal waste disposal and the handling of hazardous industrial wastes may be degraded by conflict and instability. The breakdown in state-run services can lead to the contamination of soils and water through illicit waste dumping and air pollution from uncontrolled burning, with consequences for public and environmental health. 


Case study: Iraq, 2003
A local scrap collector looks out over a dump site containing a mixture of household, municipal and military waste near Basrah, Iraq. Credit: Wim Zwijnenburg

A local scrap collector looks out over a dump site containing a mixture of household, municipal and military waste near Basrah, Iraq. Credit: Wim Zwijnenburg

The dismantling of Iraq’s administrative structures that followed the invasion in 2003 had serious repercussions for the provision of basic environmental services. The US project to purge Ba’ath Party members from government positions weakened the capacity of ministries and the prolonged insecurity in the country created new pollution problems and exacerbated those that had developed during the post-1991 sanctions regime.

Studies into childhood health in Iraq have suggested a link between birth defects and other developmental problems and the lack of environmentally sound waste disposal practises, in addition to exposures from the pollution generated by the conflict itself. The use of open air waste burning and the release of untreated waste from derelict and functioning factories were found to be particularly problematic.

A UN Environment Programme led assessment of waste disposal practices and facilities in Iraq discovered inadequate waste handling facilities and the lack of capacity and knowledge for environmentally safe waste removal and handling.

Key issues
  • Environmental services can be severely degraded by conflict and instability yet they fulfil a key function in protecting civilian and environmental health from pollution.
  • There is a need to ensure that environmental considerations are better integrated into both humanitarian response and post-war reconstruction and that technical and financial assistance is available to facilitate this.
  • Pollution generated by improper waste management and oversight should be taken into account during post-conflict public health surveillance in order to identify communities at risk and target assistance.
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