Governmental authorities fulfil a key role in reducing the health and environmental risks from pollution through assessing pollution risks and enforcing restrictions on the activities of polluters. Doing so requires technical capacity to monitor emissions and assess infringements. During and after conflict, governmental capacity for undertaking this role may be much diminished. This is at a time where high levels of pollution may be generated and good governance is sorely needed.
Case study: Iraq, 2003
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was undertaken with comparatively few troops and a heavy reliance on air power. The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime led to the elimination of governmental control over wide swathes of the country and, in the ensuing instability, looting of hazardous industrial sites that had been abandoned or left damaged from Coalition bombing was widespread.
The inability of the occupying powers to secure dangerous industrial sites resulted from a political decision on force size that was intended to minimise Coalition casualties in an operation that was politically unpopular. However, that decision placed civilians at risk of exposure to a range of toxic chemicals and nuclear materials. As an occupying power the Coalition forces were legally obliged to protect the health of civilians in areas under their control yet failed to do so.
Documenting the extent of contamination from these sites and the risks they posed to communities was complicated by the impact of the Coalition’s dismantlement of Iraq’s governmental structures. Capacity was also weakened by the brain drain of experts from the country that was triggered by the ongoing insecurity and the impact of sanctions on the technical capacity of Iraqi ministries.
The responsibility for documenting the worst hotspots of contamination in the country fell to the UN Environment Programme after funding was made available by the Japanese government. However their work was hampered by insecurity and efforts to secure the most hazardous sites did not begin until two years after the initial invasion had officially ended.
- Conflict degrades the capacity of governments to monitor environmental hazards at a time where severe pollution incidents that directly threaten civilians are common.
- The inability to secure and assess industrial sites and other likely pollution sources after conflict can pose grave threats to public health.
- Capacity building and other forms of international assistance are required to reduce public health and environmental risks.