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The impact of war

The most significant event in 2003 in the political and environmental arena was the war in Iraq. Chronic problems, which accumulated over the past two decades under the former Iraqi government and the economic impact of sanctions, were exacerbated by the war. While the long-term environmental impacts of the war are as yet unclear, the short-term problems included water pollution (Box 3) and land degradation.

Box 3: Impact of conflict on freshwater systems

Physical damage to Iraq’s water and sanitation infrastructure has led to higher levels of pollution and health risks, worsening an already critical waste management situation, particularly in urban areas. There were reports of water logging and salinization as a result of regular power blackouts, which seriously affected the pumping out of saline water from irrigated lands in the southern floodplains.
In addition, the collapse of sewage treatment systems due to frequent power cuts has resulted in large amounts of sewage, mixed with industrial waste, entering directly into water bodies such as the Tigris River, Baghdad’s only water source.
The indirect impacts on water quality and quantity occur as a result of conflict-related institutional challenges. Chronic uncoordinated and fragmented management of water resources and infrastructure has contributed to water quality and quantity degradation.

Source: UNEP 2003a
Figure 1: Satellite images of smoke from oil trench fires over Baghdad during the Iraq War, 2 April, 2003.

Source: USGS EROS Data Center/UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls

The destruction of military and industrial infrastructure released heavy metals and other hazardous substances into the air, soil and water (UNEP 2003a). Fires at Rumeila oil wells in southern Iraq and in oil trenches in and around Baghdad, generated large quantities of dense black smoke, containing toxic substances, with potential environmental and human health risks for local people (Figure 1). The oil trenches also cause soil pollution and potentially threaten contamination of aquifers and drinking water supplies (UNEP 2003a). Fire at the Al-Mishraq sulphur plant, 30 km south of Mosul in Northern Iraq, which lasted for about a month between June–July 2003 (UNEP 2003a), also contributed to air pollution.
A recent UNEP desk study on the environment in the Occupied Palestinian Territories identifies serious environmental problems, including sewage pollution, waste of water resources and problems with solid waste handling as a result of the escalating Israeli-Arab conflict (UNEP 2003d). The study further states that the relative scarcity of water in the Territories is a major constraint to economic development. The quality of water is rapidly deteriorating, mainly from agricultural practices, localized industrial activities, and inadequate or improper disposal of wastewater and solid waste. Over-pumping has resulted in seawater intrusion of groundwater, especially in Gaza. It also reports that the separation wall would not only separate people from their agricultural land and water wells, but would have environmental impacts, for example, fragmenting ecosystems and disconnecting natural ecological corridors.


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