Progress on protecting the environment from conflict is long-overdue

The streets are flowing with oil and a lot of it is on fire, so the air is dark with smoke. All you can smell is smoke. Your lungs itch. There’s one hospital in the town, but we couldn’t get in because it’s been mined. The primary health clinic is surrounded by a river of oil, so it’s not accessible either. Crude oil is flowing into the Tigris River.

This was the Iraqi town of Qayyarah at the end of August, when UNICEF Emergency Specialist Atheer Al-Yaseen and his colleagues gained access to it following the town’s liberation by the Iraqi Army. As Islamic State forces had retreated, they had opened oil pipelines, and blown-up well heads. The smoke plumes from the wells were so intense they were visible from space. By mid-October, three wells were still burning. Residents who had fled were returning to their homes, facing exposure to the noxious fallout from the fires and fumes from the spills.

It was a sign of things to come. As Iraqi and Kurdish forces advanced on Mosul, oil filled trenches and more well-heads were set alight by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Civilians fleeing or trapped in Mosul have been exposed daily to pollutants from the fires. And ISIL have not stopped at oil infrastructure, starting fires at the Mishraq sulphur plant that resulted in 1,000 people requiring medical treatment, even as fears grow that other industrial facilities in Mosul itself will be used as weapons. 

Elsewhere in Iraq, and over the border in Syria, harm to the environment and to human health from oil pollution has gone hand in hand with conflict. Bombing of oil facilities captured by Islamic State has not only polluted the environment close to the sites, but the policy has also driven a huge surge in makeshift oil refineries. Communities desperate for income supply other communities desperate for fuel for heating and transport. The highly polluting process of refining crude oil is often run by children; the refineries poison those who work on them, oil smoke blackens the air and oil products contaminate soils.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, in Libya, Ukraine and Yemen will all leave environmental damage in their wake. The toxic remnants of these wars – oil spills and fires, household and industrial waste, rubble, military contaminants and industrial pollution - threaten the health of civilians and ecosystems now, and will continue to do so for many years to come. Some threats, like oil spills and fires from bombed installations are direct, obvious and visible. But others, like the makeshift refineries or deforestation, come from the coping strategies of stressed communities, or are a response to sometimes complex sequences of events caused by how and where wars are fought. For some conflicts, environmental degradation was the trigger for the insecurity that led to war. For others, environmental stewardship may be the key to building peace

Four decades of learning
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the first attempt by governments to agree to rules for warfare designed to protect the environment. Triggered by the Viet Nam War, which saw the widespread use of toxic defoliants and efforts to modify the weather, this first attempt to limit environmental harm from conflict has subsequently proved inadequate to the scale of the task. In the 1970s, we simply didn’t understand enough about the connections between conflict, environmental damage and the protection of civilians. Nor did governments wish for their actions to be constrained by the need to protect the environment. Critically, the rules said nothing about what should be done after conflicts, to remedy damage, and assist those affected. 

Thanks to the work of UN Environment, academics, lawyers, NGOs and those directly affected by wartime environmental degradation, we now have a far better understanding of the environmental drivers and consequences of conflicts than we did back then. We also understand that these consequences are regularly of such a scale and intensity that countries recovering from conflict are left dealing with their legacy for years, invariably at a time when they are least able to do so. Environmental monitoring and assessments have also taught us that the impact of conflicts on ecosystems and civilians varies enormously, meaning that these efforts are vital for understanding patterns of harm and determining responses.

Silent no longer?
On the UN day on conflict and the environment in 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the environment “the silent casualty of war and armed conflict”. This May, the UN Environment Assembly passed by consensus an historic resolution stressing the importance of protecting the environment from conflict, and for its restoration afterwards. States were invited to cooperate closely on preventing, minimising and mitigating the negative impacts of armed conflicts on the environment, and it emphasised the need to raise greater international awareness of the problem.

Was it a sign that governments are finally getting serious about conflict and the environment? If so it is long-overdue and much will depend on how governments choose to implement the resolution, and what happens next. But as the world works towards the Sustainable Development Goals, it is increasingly clear that many fragile and conflict-affected countries will fail to meet those goals unless we first address the impact and legacy of conflict on the environment, and on all those who depend on it.

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project, part of a global coalition of NGOs advocating for a greater standard of environmental and civilian protection before, during and after armed conflict. The project is on Twitter: @detoxconflict