Why conflict pollution matters at UNEA-3 

You can’t #BeatPollution without first beating conflict pollution.

With a minority of governments questioning whether the United Nations Environment Assembly is an appropriate forum for debating the nexus between armed conflicts, terrorism and pollution, Wim Zwijnenburg examines why the assembly’s goal to #BeatPollution must also address the toxic remnants of war.     

This week, states have gathered in Nairobi for the 3rd United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-3). The theme for this year is pollution, and resolutions on a range of pollution topics are being negotiated; including air pollution, marine plastic, chemicals and waste, and the linkages between human rights and environmental health.

In response to the environmental dimensions of recent and ongoing conflicts, Iraq tabled a draft resolution on ‘Pollution prevention and control in areas affected by terrorist operations and armed conflicts’ in September. Prior to UNEA-3, states intensely debated the wording of the resolution, with some voicing concerns over issues such as natural resources, the lawfulness of targeting industrial sites, and the link between terrorism and the environment, to name just a few. Late last night, states finally reached consensus on the draft, which will then be formally adopted in Wednesday’s closing plenary.

A minority of states have even questioned whether UNEA is the appropriate forum to discuss conflict and the environment, while others have queried the added value that the new text brings. With that in mind, this blog examines the link between conflict, pollution and environmental health, based on the research that PAX has conducted on the issue. In so doing, it identifies four key themes that are also reflected in the language of the draft text.

Conflict pollution and human health

That pollution can have adverse effects on human health is reflected throughout the draft text. This matters, because when we think about the humanitarian impact of conflicts we tend to understandably focus on the direct impacts of weapons or displacement, and environmental health issues tend to be forgotten.

Yet almost all conflicts feature examples of people suffering from exposure to the toxic remnants of war, for example in Iraq in 2003 where children needed treatment after being exposed to toxic rocket fuel; or a similar case in Libya where a scud missile storage facility required specialised remediation due to leaking rocket fuels. In Ukraine, the UN and OSCE have issued numerous warnings about the potential risk of a chemical incident that could affect hundreds, as armed groups use heavy weapons around a water treatment plant storing thousands of litres of liquid chlorine.

In Iraq, more than 1,000 civilians were exposed to noxious fumes resulting from the targeting of the Al-Mishraq sulphur plant; thousands more have been exposed to pollution from the burning oil wells at Qayyarah, which burned for more than eight months. Those are merely the visible cases, as in other cases such as with Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the use of artisanal oil refineries in Syria, it can take years before the health impacts of the chronic exposure to toxic remnants of war begin to manifest, by which time media attention on the conflict may be long gone.

Conflicts and environmental damage

Parts of the draft resolution reflect concerns over environmental damage in relation to armed conflicts and terrorism. Short or prolonged conflict can lead to severe environmental degradation, as we’ve seen in the past with the aforementioned Agent Orange, a defoliant that was contaminated with dioxins. More recently we have identified oil spills caused by the activities of the so-called Islamic State, which polluted the River Tigris, and covered large swathes of agricultural land in Hawijah, the green heart of Iraq. The fallout from the burning wells at Qayyarah covered lands like a black blanket, impacting soil and water resources and stirring profound concern among the communities affected.  We’ve also seen how non-state armed groups have exploited natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia, leading to serious environmental damage that has affected biodiversity, land use, water and created localised pollution hotspots.

Conflict pollution and human rights

Environmental human rights are also alluded to in the resolution. UN Special Rapporteurs mandated by the Human Rights Council to examine the linkages between rights, the environment and toxics have helped articulate the relationship between conflict pollution and the enjoyment of human rights. For example the Special Rapporteur on toxic waste raised it in his last two reports, in particular the vulnerable position of children in armed conflict exposed to military toxics and, in his most recent report on Good Practice Guidelines, he highlighted the link between conflict pollution and the rights to health, a clean environment and to effective remedies:

“Existing laws intended to protect the environment during armed conflict have proven insufficient to prevent serious pollution and other forms of exposure to hazardous substances. Communities in and around conflict zones continue to face substantial legacies of toxic exposure. (..) The lack of transparency demonstrated by States regarding the pollution caused by their actions during conflict can impede the identification of contaminated sites, and thus limit access of affected communities to preventative health care, information on how to reduce risks and other protective measures. Moreover, States recovering from conflict often lack technical assistance and funding to remediate toxic remnants of war, leading to further harm post-conflict.”

Strengthening this discussion on human rights in relation to conflict pollution could help communities in their struggle for justice, and in ensuring access to remediation and medical assistance where needed.

Conflict pollution and its socio-economic consequences

Conflict pollution, and other forms of wartime environmental degradation, often leads to the loss of socio-economic opportunities for communities. Meanwhile the conditions associated with the conflicts themselves can force those affected into pursuing polluting and unsustainable coping strategies. This is noted in the resolution, which also highlights the loss of biodiversity, the loss of crops or livestock and their impact on sustainable recovery.

Our survey in Iraq has found that affected communities are deeply concerned by conflict pollution. It will complicate their efforts to rebuild their lives and livelihoods as their lands were affected by oil spills, livestock were killed, or forced to graze in areas affected by the oil soot. In Syria and in Iraq, civilians, including many children, began operating artisanal oil refineries, as other forms of income generation were absent. Day in and day out they have been exposed to toxic fumes and hazardous waste resulting from heating up crude oil. The refineries seem likely to remain part of local economies for the foreseeable future as the professional oil industry has been heavily damaged by all parties to the conflict.

From words to deeds

These few examples demonstrate that conflict pollution carries with it a significant health, environmental and social impact. In this respect we are pleased that UNEA-3 has directly addressed this problem. However this should be viewed by the international community as only a starting point for concerted efforts to minimise the generation of toxic remnants of war and to increase the protection of civilians and their environment; for example by affording greater priority to the environment in assessing the impacts of conflict, and in humanitarian response.

More effective mainstreaming of the environment will result in saved lives and livelihoods, and help in tackling the hazardous environmental legacy of armed conflict. It seems that we have a final agreed text – so the next question is how will it be implemented?


Wim Zwijnenburg is a Project Leader on Humanitarian Disarmament with PAX.


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