During the third session of the UN Environmental Assembly, PAX launched a new report on conflict pollution in Iraq, titled ‘Living under a black sky’. As PAX’s Foeke Postma reports, the launch event provided a unique opportunity to bring relevant experts together to discuss the findings with the Iraqi Deputy Minister of Health and Environment, and to dive deeper into Iraq’s struggle with environmental degradation and pollution.
Moderating, the Toxic Remnants of War Project’s Doug Weir introduced the work of the TRW Network and the topic of conflict pollution, thanking the delegation of Iraq for its initiative to bring forward a resolution on the topic. As a cross-cutting issue, he noted that situations of armed conflict have the potential to impact all the pollution themes under consideration at UNEA-3. Because, in addition to the direct forms of pollution caused by conflicts and military activities, the collapse of environmental governance in states affected by armed conflict hampers efforts to address all forms of pollution, whether it be air quality or the management of chemicals and wastes.
Iraq’s Deputy Minister of Health and the Environment, Dr. Jassem Abdul Azziz Hamadi, and Iraq’s Ambassador to Kenya, Zaid Izzadin Mohammad Noori, both expressed their gratitude to PAX for the report. The Deputy Minister highlighted the grave concerns over the pollution caused by the scorched earth tactics of the so-called Islamic State (IS), and how this posed a severe threat to human health. In his remarks, he further detailed how climate change has impacted Iraq’s environment, and led to degradation and insecurity.
The Iraqi delegation was pleased with the findings of the PAX report, stating that it was a very helpful tool for raising awareness of the issue among member states. The report provided a strong backbone to the discussion on the content of the resolution that Iraq had tabled. The resolution, ‘Pollution mitigation and control in areas affected by armed conflict or terrorism’, is the first ever UN resolution solely on conflict pollution. If implemented, it could provide a framework through which to better engage states, international organisations and civil society to the deal with the impact of conflict on the environment and human health. The Iraqi delegation also stressed the need for capacity building to deal with these issues, as their country had been severely affected by years of intense fighting. They argued that Iraq needed skilled experts, equipment and financial support to identify, remediate and monitor areas of pollution.
Wim Zwijnenburg, Project Leader at PAX, and the author of the report, thanked the Iraqi delegation for their comments and stressed the importance of amplifying the voices of Iraqi communities. He also stated that PAX had been monitoring environmental damage in Iraq since 2014, among other countries and regions, and explained that using open source information to locate sources of environmental pollution, and to identify key areas of concern, both during and after conflict, is tremendously important. PAX had visited one affected area – the oil town of Qayyarah – to identify the issues it faced and to conduct a survey of residents. They found that environmental pollution hit the poorest people the hardest, and those affected were calling for urgent remediation and medical assistance.
Oli Brown, Coordinator of UN Environment’s Disasters and Conflicts Programme, summarised his views in three main points. Firstly, the environmental impact of conflicts creates major challenges as it complicates rebuilding and increases war’s humanitarian toll. Secondly, if you want to deal with these issues, you need to understand them, which is why research like that done by PAX is critical in this work. Lastly, it is important to have many groups working together. He argued that, while it is the responsibility of governments to address these issues, with the rise in the availability of open-source information, the monitoring work that civil society organisations like PAX and the Toxic Remnants of War Project do is very important in creating a detailed overview of the issues. This is why UN Environment really welcomed the report.
Peter Schwartzstein, a freelance journalist, who has worked extensively on environmental issues in the MENA region, delved into the environmental factors that had driven the recruitment of IS. Poor farmers, unable to make a living due to environmental degradation and climate change, were driven into their arms. The droughts that had affected Iraq, and which had killed livestock and harmed agriculture, had created a fertile breeding ground for IS’s recruitment. Providing an example of this, Schwartzstein noted the strong correlation between villages that did have access to an irrigation canal, and those that didn’t. He had found that IS recruitment rates were almost five times higher in those without access. Similarly, farmers further away from river valleys, and so closer to the desert, were more likely to be recruited. This is why, he suggested, that next to the food and water crises, for Iraq, the environment is a matter of national security: another reason why the work of PAX is so important. He concluded by arguing that: “The future security of Iraq rests on getting to grips with its environmental damage.”
During the discussion with journalists that followed, various questions were brought forward on the state of the environment in Iraq prior to the rise of IS, and how its previous conflicts had already led to severe pollution at sites throughout the country. It was noted by members of the panel that the absence of strong environmental governance had severely impacted environmental conditions in Iraq, for example through waste dumping by heavy industry. At the same time, climate change and water policies in neighbouring countries have had an impact on agricultural lands in both the north and the south of Iraq.
Clearly, the linked issues of conflict, pollution and environmental degradation are complex, and addressing them requires a multi-faceted approach. The PAX report, and reporting by journalists and UN bodies on this issue, demonstrates the growing momentum for finding a structural solution that deals with accountability for the military conduct of state and non-state actors. There is also a need for humanitarian organisations to step-up their efforts in dealing with environmental health issues in conflict-affected regions, and for civil society to push for stronger, and faster, international responses to these toxic remnants of war
Foeke Postma is a Programme Officer on armed drones and conflict and the environment at PAX.