London conference highlights opportunities to improve environmental response to conflict pollution in Iraq

An Iraqi firefighter looks on as one of the 19 oil wells set alight by Islamic State near Qayyarah, northern Iraq burns. Credit: Wim Zwijnenburg

As the dust settles from the battle to recapture Mosul, and the urgent humanitarian crisis reaches its peak with millions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in desperate need of medical help, shelter food and water, Iraq is beginning to reflect on the extent of the damage inflicted by the battle against the so-called Islamic State (IS). Beyond the immediate needs of IDPs, it is becoming clear that recovery and reconstruction will be a huge challenge, requiring billions of dollars to rebuild the country. One element that will need to be addressed, writes Wim Zwijnenburg, but which is rarely prioritised in the reconstruction agenda, is the impact of conflict on the environment and its consequent health risks.

Three years of fighting have left major towns and cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah in ruins. The severe destruction to residential, commercial and industrial areas in the cities is likely to have created environmental hotspots from the release of hazardous industrial chemicals and the build-up of rubble and domestic wastes. Meanwhile, IS has used scorched-earth tactics, polluting rivers with chemicals, and setting fire to 19 oil wells around Qayyarah, as well as to the Mishraq Sulphur factory. Understanding the health risks that have resulted from these serious pollution incidents will require specific expertise and analysis, if we’re to understand the threat they pose to Iraqi civilians and the environment they depend on.

To discuss these concerns, the Iraqi Environment and Health Committee in the UK (IEHC-UK) organised a conference on the 8th of July at University College London, attended by Iraqi engineers, medical health professional, environmental experts, PhD students and civil society organisations. The event was sponsored by RSK Group PLC and attendees considered Iraq’s pre-existing pollution problems and the consequences of the latest conflict with IS. In doing so they hoped to provide a starting point for engagement with the international community and the Iraqi government, and to encourage the inclusion of environmental health concerns in the assessment of the conflict and in post-conflict reconstruction.

President of the IEHC-UK Dr Jehan Baban, opened the conference by highlighting the environmental damage caused by Daesh (IS): “This criminal organisation has destroyed Iraq’s environment and heritage and has left a terrible legacy of death, destruction, pollution and millions of internally displaced Iraqi citizens with a detrimental effect on economy and health.” The sentiment was echoed by Iraq’s ambassador to the UK, who spoke on the disastrous environmental legacy wrought upon the country by past conflicts, as well as the current conflict against IS. The ambassador expressed the need to include these problems during the rebuilding of the country in order to provide a clean and safe environment for returning refugees and those internally displaced. He also raised concerns over other pollution sources, such as those from poor industrial practices, as well as the lack of proper implementation of environmental policies.

Iraqi experts then presented on a number of  historical and contemporary pollution issues; initiatives undertaken by oil companies operating in southern Iraq to tackle industrial pollution; and current challenges in meeting Iraq’s National Strategy on Environment and Health. Taken together, they presented a mosaic of issues that would benefit from a comprehensive nationwide approach towards environmental pollution.

PAX and the Toxic Remnants of War (TRW) Project also presented their research and policy findings at the conference. Wim Zwijnenburg discussed the findings from PAX’s work monitoring the conflict’s environmental impact, which addressed remotely monitoring damage to industrial sites, oil fields and oil infrastructure, makeshift oil refineries and urban areas, and how this type of remote assessment using open-source information can provide a starting point for post-conflict field assessments. He also shared their findings from fieldwork undertaken by PAX, which had demonstrated that greater cooperation between UN agencies and humanitarian organisations could improve responses to environmental health risks from conflicts.

Doug Weir from the TRW Project sought to place the latest environmental damage in Iraq into historical context by considering how it might influence the renewed international debate over strengthening the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts. Environmental damage caused by the 1991 Gulf War had triggered significant global interest in conflict and the environment, while the 2003 Iraq War was the first time where the environment significantly featured in a UN-led response to a conflict. The oil fires started by ISIS came shortly after an historic resolution was passed by the UN Environment Assembly on conflict and the environment, and pollution fears in Iraq look set to inform a new resolution at December 2017’s meeting of the body.

Pollution: a huge problem in Iraq

The ensuing discussion between participants and the audience provided useful insights on how to tackle new and historical civil and conflict pollution issues in Iraq. Beyond the major reconstruction challenges, there are other underlying structural issues that must also be addressed, most notably the lack of strong governance able to implement much needed environmental policies and the oversight of heavy industrial and oil industry sites. Weak governance has sustained a range of polluting practices, such as the dumping of chemical waste, and has increased air pollution. Other experts mentioned the festering corruption issues within the government that hinder progress in battling pollution. This was a problem both before the current conflict and risks increasing during the reconstruction phase, as billions of dollars flow into the country to support rebuilding its industry and urban areas.

For PAX and the TRW Project, it became clear from the discussion that a coordinated effort by all relevant actors in Iraq is needed to address the complexity of the environmental issues it faces. Various UN agencies and humanitarian organisations work separately on single issues, such as the damage assessment of urban areas, waste collection problems, monitoring of oil fires and documenting the health concerns raised by those living in affected areas. Often, individuals in these organisations have little knowledge of the work being done by others, and responses would benefit greatly from improved information sharing. However, one positive example has been UN OCHA and UNEP’s placement of a field officer in Iraq focusing on environmental health risks, and UN-Habitat, whose work on the Mosul online portal has included the publication of initial data on potential environmental health risks in the city.

As recovery and reconstruction begin, lessons should be learned from Iraq’s past dealings with toxic remnants of war. One of these lessons is the importance of including the views of affected communities when prioritising assessment and remediation projects, and the need to improve awareness-raising and risk-education in affected areas. Processes that aren’t inclusive, and where information on risks is not made available to communities, can generate unnecessary anxiety over perceived risks, concerns that can fuel local grievances towards the authorities, which can be exploited by political groups. The rights of communities to information on environmental risks that can impact their human rights and livelihoods must be respected, as must their right to participate fully in decision-making that affects those rights.

Governments funding reconstruction efforts should ensure that funding is available for relevant expert organisations such as UN Environment, to ensure that environmental and sustainability policies and targets are fully mainstreamed in recovery and reconstruction projects. This will require a monitoring and accountability mechanism that covers relevant Iraqi government bodies, international organisations, NGOs and the private sector. Ensuring that the environmental rights of affected communities are respected and protected, and that post-conflict reconstruction is sustainable and avoids further harm to the environment are core principles with universal application.

The Iraqi Environment and Health Committee in the UK’s 2017 conference statement is available below or here as a PDF.

Wim Zwijnenburg is a Project Leader on Humanitarian Disarmament with PAX @wammezz 


Iraqi Environment and Health Committee in the UK (IEHC-UK)
Statement: Environmental policies and cooperation vital for Iraq’s future after Daesh

A committee of Iraqi and British scientists and health experts has called for an urgent evaluation of the environmental damage caused by Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq, and its potential impact on public health.

The Iraqi Environment and Health Committee in the UK (IEHC-UK) is calling for the Iraqi government and international communities to ensure that the defeat of Daesh is a turning point for Iraq’s degraded and war-damaged environment, that the effects of the latest conflict on health and the environment are fully assessed and addressed, and to ensure that recovery and reconstruction in affected areas is guided by sustainable environmental principles.

Daesh has used deliberate attacks on the environment as a weapon of war, causing severe pollution, threatening the health of communities in affected areas. This has included attacks on oil refineries and facilities, including fires at 19 oil wells around the town of Qayyarah, some of which burned for nine months until March 2017. Sporadic attacks on wells and pipelines are ongoing. The fires have caused severe air pollution, affected the soil,  ground water and livestock of nearby  towns and villages and IDP camps. Daesh also set fire to sulphur stockpiles at the Al-Mishraq Sulphur Plant, creating a huge plume of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, killing 10  and hospitalising 1,000. The environmental consequences of these pollution incidents must be fully addressed.

The intense fighting to expel Daesh from Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit and Mosul has left urban areas in ruins and created millions of tonnes of rubble, often mixed with hazardous waste.  Industrial sites containing toxic substances have been damaged and waste management systems have collapsed increasing the risks from communicable diseases.  The collapse of local administrations responsible for pollution control is worsening the situation and there are significant concerns over the conflict`s impact on drinking water resources in the region.

Speaking at an IEHC-UK conference on the pollution in Iraq earlier this month, Iraq’s Ambassador to London, His Excellency Dr. Salih Husain Ali AL-Tamimi said: “What is unbelievable is that Daesh also succeeded in using basic chemical weapons in Mosul and Taza in Nineveh. This is proof that terrorists have the intention of destroying everything in Iraq including its people. I urge the international community to unite their effort with the Iraqi government to provide humanitarian aid to the displaced people in Iraq because the suffering of civilians has been extreme.”

Dr. Jehan Baban, the President of IEHC-UK, said: “Another important and serious cause of environmental damage in Iraq is Daesh. This criminal organization that destroyed Iraq environment and heritage and has left a terrible legacy of death, destruction, pollution and millions of internally displaced Iraqi citizens with detrimental effect on economy and health.”

Three post-Daesh environmental challenges challenges facing Iraq

The one day conference on Saturday 8th July 2017  at University College London, on Environmental Pollution in Iraq: Challenges and Remedies, was organised by The Iraqi Environment and  Health Committee in the UK (IEHC), and sponsored by RSK Group PLC. In a special session devoted to discussing post-Daesh environmental challenges, the conference identified three challenges for Iraq.

Firstly, while the liberation of Mosul is a great victory, it must be matched by further political and economic victories, particularly in commencing national reconciliation and dealing with the causes of extremism and terrorism in Iraq. This must include achieving progress on the state of Iraq’s environment, which is directly linked to the life and health of the Iraqi people and the future of their country.

Secondly, a scientific and planned approach is needed to reconstruction and rebuilding to create safe and sustainable urban environments. This entails rebuilding what has been destroyed by Daesh, including critical infrastructure, housing stock and waste management services, and in ensuring that displaced communities can return to a clean and safe environment.

Thirdly, the sustainable reconstruction of Mosul and other affected areas will require the support of the international community, including in the provision of technical and scientific expertise, to ensure that reconstruction is undertaken in and creates a clean, healthy and safe environment. The conference called for cooperation between international allies and for the comprehensive collaboration with scientists and experts from international organisations, NGOs and the private sector concerned with environmental issues to help in planning and implementing actions to provide remedies for the environmental challenges. This would also require that local authorities address the concerns of communities over pollution threats and ensure their active involvement in decision-making over subsequent clean-up and remediation programmes .

The conference

The conference sessions covered many themes of current concern in Iraq such as water, air and soil pollution, pollution by radiation and chemicals, desertification and the Iraqi National Strategy on the Environment. Speakers also addressed the current legislation related to the environment, renewable energy policy, past-pollution issues  and the need to update the national curricula for environmental education in primary and secondary schools and colleges in Iraq. Alongside the Iraqi Ambassador, the conference also welcomed his Deputy, and Cultural and Medical attachés. Attendees comprised experts, scientists, civil society organisations and medical professionals concerned with environmental pollution in Iraq and its impact on public health. The conference also heard from a number of Iraqi post-graduate PhD students who are studying environmental subjects at British universities.

The Iraqi Environment and Health Committee in UK (IEHC) was founded in June 2015 in London. Among the aims of the IEHC are to organise workshops, conferences and seminars concerning with environment and its impact on public health in Iraq. The IEHC also seeks to raise awareness and influence environmental and health policy-making in Iraq, and to promote scientific knowledge regarding environmental pollution within the Iraqi community. Its first conference in 2016 was co-sponsored by the UK National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).

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