ECC Platform Library

 

A toxic legacy: remediating pollution in Iraq

21 November, 2017
Wim Zwijnenburg

As the so-called Islamic State loses control over the areas it once occupied, it is leaving behind a toxic legacy. The initial findings of a scoping mission undertaken by UN Environment Programme’s Conflict and Disasters branch found a trail of localized pollution that could have acute and chronic consequences for Iraq—and not just for its environment.

While this is a good start, a much wider assessment is needed to strengthen Iraq’s capacity to minimize civilian exposure to toxic remnants of war and their acute and chronic health impacts. And larger questions loom: How can we hold the perpetrators accountable? What are the long-term environmental health risks for affected communities? Could the pollution—and inadequate responses to it—spur political grievances? 

Daesh Winter: ISIS’ Environmental Destruction

Over the last three years, little work has been done to assess the environmental damage from the conflict against ISIS. Institutions in affected areas have partly or completely collapsed; crucial data and expertise are missing; and there is little capacity to monitor and respond to pollution.

While money flowed in to rebuild Iraq’s oil industry, the level of attention to environmental issues remained low

Before the conflict with ISIS, Iraq was setting up a functioning system to monitor pollution and address other environmental issues, such as water scarcity and industrial toxic waste. Iraq was already struggling with toxic remnants from the previous wars that ravaged the country. UNEP identified several environmental hotspots, helped strengthen environmental regulations, and built capacity for clean-up and remediation work. But while money flowed in to rebuild Iraq’s oil industry, the level of attention to environmental issues remained fairly low. Mismanagement and corruption often hindered effective implementation of efforts to tackle toxic waste problems, remediate polluted sites, and improve industrial regulation.

After ISIS took over large parts of northern Iraq in 2014, the battle to defeat them quickly rolled back any progress that had been made on environmental recovery. Even worse, ISIS’ scorched earth tactics had a devastating impact on Ninewah and Kirkuk governorates. Dozens of oil wells burned for months, some of them even years, clouding communities under dark smoke plumes that blocked the sun in the apocalyptically named “Daesh Winter.” A sulphur fire  and subsequent toxic smoke cloud at the Mishraq factory also directly affected the health of thousands of civilians in surrounding villages. The conflict polluted water sources and left Iraq littered with millions of tons rubble and debris from destroyed cities and towns, as well as toxic waste from industrial sites and artisanal oil refining.

After the Dust Settles: Next Steps in Iraq

Traditionally, conflict-related environmental damage and subsequent health risks for communities receive little attention during post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation, where it competes with more pressing humanitarian concerns.  This is slowly changing, as we learn how important environmental conditions are for socio-economic development and how the toxic remnants of war affect health and well-being.  Civilians can be directly exposed to toxic materials like munition remnants, or to hazardous materials released into the environment when industrial sites are targeted.  Over the long term, pollutants from contaminated drinking water or soil can build up in the body, causing long-term health damage, especially to children.

If environmental risks are not properly addressed, well-meaning efforts to clean up may backfire

If these environmental risks are not properly addressed, the well-meaning efforts to clean up may backfire against the authorities involved in post-conflict reconstruction. Grievances from insufficient remediation of conflict-related pollution in Iraq, South Sudan, and Vietnam have led to protests. Even in the United States, contamination from military bases and firing ranges has raised concerns.

The international community will need to provide funding and technical assistance to support identification and clearing of Iraq’s most pressing hotspots. Next, the environmental health of affected communities should be monitored, which will also support taking a more evidence-based approach towards conflict pollution and its consequences for civilians in the future.

Such an approach should be mainstreamed in both humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction programs at all relevant levels, from identification of direct need to long-term monitoring and rehabilitation work.  Of course, this leaves a big financial elephant in the room. Non-state armed groups or terrorists like ISIS are not going to pay. In past conflicts, some countries responsible for pollution have voluntarily provided funds, like the United States did to clean up Agent Orange pollution in Vietnam, or forced to pay, like Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. Other debates are stalled, such as Lebanon’s complaint asking Israel to pay for clean-up of oil spilled during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. So who will pay for the clean-up of pollution in Iraq?

At the UN Environmental Assembly meeting, to be held in Nairobi this December, Iraq will submit a resolution on “Pollution prevention and control in areas affected by terrorist operations and armed conflict.” The draft language outlines various core issues in providing international assistance for countries dealing with environmental damage a result of armed conflict, such as minimizing damage to potentially hazardous facilities and infrastructure in military operations, and ensuring communities affected by pollution caused by conflict get support for remediation and healthcare. The resolution asks that specialist international agencies assist in identifying, monitoring, and cleaning up the toxic remnants of war. While funding these activities will be challenge, efficient and effective policies to address environmental issues in humanitarian response and recovery will provide cost benefits for the international community.

Paying the Bill: Environmental Recovery After Conflict

To ensure that the environment will be mainstreamed in humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction, we offer a few recommendations:

  • Better information on local environmental damage and creation of conflict-related sources of pollution could support a more efficient response to these threats, mitigating long-term impacts on health and the subsequent social-economic costs. This could be done by applying novel tools and technologies to identify and monitor conflicts and the potential environmental hotspots they create.
  • A specific environment lens for reconstruction and rehabilitation work could incorporate existing knowledge and expertise from environmental emergencies from relevant organizations including UNEP, NGOs, and the private sector.
  • Countries with a history of dealing with environmental issues could provide funding to kick start to the above-mentioned work and lead by example to demonstrate the direct and long-term benefits of tackling environmental damage cause by conflict. Larger reconstruction efforts through the World Bank should incorporate this issue in programming.

This approach could help us paint a picture of the true cost of war that includes the long-term effects of its enormous environmental damage and the acute and chronic health risks to civilians.  Ideally, it could also restrain polluting military practices or tactics by putting a price on these operations. If no one is willing to pick up the bill for the environmental costs of war, we should take more steps to avoid running up such a huge tab and adding to the health burden of civilians trying to rebuild their lives and livelihoods after war.

BlogA New Climate for Peace
Topic

Topic


Region

Region


Source
New Security Beat

Tags security land & food water biodiversity & livelihoods environment & migration middle east & north africa

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

Read more

Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

Read more

Cities

Sorry, no description found.

Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

Read more

Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

Read more

Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

Read more

Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

Read more

Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

Read more

Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

Read more

Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

Read more

Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

Read more

Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

Read more

Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

Read more

Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

Read more

Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

Read more

Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

Read more

Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

Read more

Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

Read more

Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

Read more

Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

Read more

North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

Read more

Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

Read more

South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

Read more

Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

Read more