The Fog of War

Battle for Mosul triggers environmental disaster as Islamic State fighters use the environment as a weapon of war, setting fire to oil wells as part of scorched earth policy

Qayyarah, Iraq

In the fight to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State, the “fog of war” has become more than a metaphor for the chaos of battle. For months, oil wells set on fire by ISIL fighters have belched thick clouds of black smoke into the skies above Iraq’s second largest city.

The dense smog, which claws at the throat and blots out the sun, has coated towns and villages south of Mosul in a fine film of black soot as Iraqi forces advance on the city.

“Everything is covered in oil: humans, food, animals, everything,” said Ahmad Obeidi as he stood at a military checkpoint in the town of Qayarrah, which has suffered some of the worst pollution.

Covered by a pall of smog, the town lives in perpetual twilight. Pools of oil spread across its streets, seeping into sewers and the nearby Tigris River. Even the town’s sheep have turned black.

As Iraqi forces fight their way towards the birthplace of the “caliphate”, retreating fighters have left behind roadside bombs and booby traps. This deadly legacy will take years to clear. So too will the environmental destruction caused by the largest military campaign in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003.

In a bid to cover their retreat, ISIL fighters have set fire to 19 oil wells as part of a scorched earth policy aimed at punishing residents in areas liberated by Iraqi forces. The militants have also burned piles of sulphur at a factory just north of Qayarrah, which lies on the main axis for Iraqi troops pushing north to Mosul.

The white smoke billowing from the plant has mixed with the black smog from the oil fires, combining to create a cloud of noxious gas that spreads over the area for dozens of kilometres. More than 1,000 people have been treated for respiratory problems so far. The fighting also damaged a water plant on October 23, leaking chlorine gas into the environment and forcing 100 civilians to seek medical care.

There is more environmental damage to come: American military officials warn that ISIL has dug trenches around Mosul and filled them with oil that its fighters plan to set alight as Iraqi troops approach. A number of industrial sites inside the city, including oil storage facilities and factories with hazardous waste, may have been rigged with explosives. There are also fears ISIL may use old stockpiles of mustard gas once the troops enter the heart of the city.

Using the environment as a weapon of war in Iraq is not a new tactic. In 1991, Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, ordered troops to set fire to oil fields as his troops withdrew from Kuwait. The oil fires burned for months.

“This [the battle for Mosul] is sadly just the latest episode in what has been the wholesale destruction of Iraq’s environment over several decades – from the destruction of the marshlands to the contamination of land and the collapse of management systems,” said UN Environment chief Erik Solheim.

“This ongoing ecocide is a recipe for a prolonged disaster. It makes living conditions dangerous and miserable, if not impossible. It will push countless people to join the unprecedented global refugee population. That’s why the environment needs to be placed at the centre of crisis response, conflict prevention and conflict resolution.”

The al-Mushriq sulphur plant, one of the largest chemical facilities in the Middle East, caught fire in 2003 during the US-led invasion of Iraq. At its worst, the fire pumped 23,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere every day. It created a local hole in the ozone layer, and killed vegetation and livestock, leaving thousands with respiratory problems.

UN Environment produced a risk assessment at the time, which said: “Burning of pure sulphur produces sulphur dioxide gas, which is corrosive and toxic. At the high concentrations generated by the fire it was present as an aerosol (white smoke/fumes). When dispersed in the atmosphere it reacts with water, other gases and dusts to form sulphuric acid and sulphates. The sulphuric acid is contained in water vapour and droplets and forms acid rain.”

With the fight to retake Mosul still raging, UN Environment has provided technical advice to emergency teams battling the fires. Its Joint Environment Unit (JEU), which it runs with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), put emergency teams in touch with hazardous materials experts, who are providing technical advice on how to tackle the fire.
It is also working closely with partners in Iraq like WHO, the UN Institute for Training and Research and the Operational Satellite Applications Programme, which have helped map the smoke plumes during the offensive.

The JEU is currently looking at deploying an environmental expert followed by a multi-agency environmental emergency mission. Extinguishing oil and sulphur fires is complicated. Pouring water on the latter results in the creation of sulphuric acid, which could then seep into and contaminate water bodies like the nearby Tigris River. Another option is to use damp sand to starve the fire of oxygen.

“Smoke plumes from the oil wells and a sulphur plant set ablaze in northern Iraq have compounded the already dire situation faced by tens of thousands of families” said Rene Nijenhuis, head of OCHA’s humanitarian operations centre. “After years of displacement and deprivation, people must now navigate the acute impact of this overwhelming smoke upon their health. This situation has now become even worse with contaminated rain likely affecting drinking water sources, livestock and agriculture.”

Urgent environmental assessments, and follow-up action, are needed to quickly reduce the long-term impact on human health and prospects for recovery in the region. ISIL may soon be gone, but their negative legacy will linger without a rapid response to the damaged environment.