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The ISIS winter: The environmental impact of Middle East conflict

Updated Wednesday, 31 January 2018
The media has moved on since the burning oil wells were extinguished, but for Iraqis, the pollution impacts add to the day-to-day misery.

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Sulphur dioxide from a fire at the Al-Mishraq sulfur plant travels over Qayyarah Airfield West, Iraq, Oct. 25, 2016 Sulphur dioxide from a fire at the Al-Mishraq sulfur plant travels over Qayyarah Airfield West, Iraq, Oct. 25, 2016

An investigation into the toxic fallout of three years of armed conflict has added the environment — and the residents set to suffer long-term impacts from pollution — to the list of casualties in Iraq.

"While the burning oil wells and severely damaged industrial sites were a visual magnet for the media, vividly showing the toxic horrors of war, interest in the long-term health consequences of exposure to conflict pollution soon faded after the fires were extinguished,” reads a report by the peace organisation PAX, issued during the UN Environment Assembly held last month (4-6 December) in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Focusing on the pollution legacy the war leaves for the local population, the report says that “although the journalists have moved on, the people living in areas where these toxic remnants of war are present will have to face the aftermath of the conflict’s environmental legacy: air pollution from the burning wells; oil soot that spread over a vast area, covering soil and affecting livestock; groundwater pollution; and crude oil and wastewater spills”.

The report, titled "Living Under a Black Sky," concluded that the armed conflict, which began in June 2014 and ended with the evacuation of ISIS militants from northern Iraq in 2017, left a deep environmental footprint in its wake — a footprint that will hinder reconstruction efforts and have long-term health and economic consequences for communities.

"The most important feature of this effort is to create a monitoring model that can provide data on the environment, not only after the conflict but also during it, making decision makers more capable of and competent to take appropriate actions," one of the report’s authors, Wim Zwijnenburg, tells SciDev.Net.

ISIS militants set fire to oil wells in the summer of 2016, as they retreated from parts of Iraq. The toxic substances that oil fires release into the air include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), particulate matter and metals such as nickel, vanadium and lead.

These substances can cause severe health effects in the short-term, especially for people with pre-existing respiratory problems. And depending on the duration and intensity of exposure, health issues that may arise include liver and kidney problems, respiratory disease and cancer.

Living an ‘ISIS Winter’

“Locals have been suffering from burns, deformations and countless disability cases,” states the report. “Human genes are also affected due to the use of chemical weapons and the burning of oil wells and military remnants. The gene mutations will result in having more birth defects.”

It added that low-income families and chronic disease patients have been affected the most, as health problems also mean more economic burdens. There were reports of suffocations, respiratory problems, rashes and an increase in allergy cases.

Worst-hit is Hamrin Hills, an area in northeastern Iraq that extends from Diyala, east of the capital Baghdad, to the northern city of Kirkuk, where two oilfields have burnt for two years.

The report included pictures of the thick, black soot that has affected the area in that period: people but also animals and plants. These show a sheep whose fur has turned black, and burning wells releasing thick black soot covering a blue sky. The report also shows members of one family with their faces and the walls of their home blackened from the smoke — all signs of exposure over a long period.

The misery of living in the shadow of toxic fumes and vapours has prompted people to say they are living an ‘ISIS Winter’.

"What happened was described as the worst environmental disaster in 2016," said Jassim Abdul Aziz Hamadi al-Falahi, environment undersecretary at Iraq’s Ministry of Health, in an interview with SciDev.Net.

Documenting the fallout

PAX kicked off the in early 2015, collecting data using several methods that included publicly available satellite imagery from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), satellite data from US imaging company Planet Labs, social media scanning and news articles.

Overall, the first part of the report addressed the pollution that resulted from damage to oil production infrastructure through the destruction of crude oil refineries, wellheads and pipelines. It finds that people are likely to have faced acute and chronic exposures to a wide range of toxic compounds, heavy metals and particulate matter, which may have serious implications for their health.

This part of the report also documents how groundwater and surface waters have been contaminated with oil products from soot and oil spills, affecting the quality of supplies for drinking and agricultural use. Cultivated and grazing lands have also been contaminated, with serious implications for agriculture and livelihoods — and burdening the Iraqi State, technically and financially.

Backyard refining of crude oil in northern Iraq, which uses primitive techniques on a small scale and illegally, was discussed in the second part of the report. Research by PAX and its partners has identified 20 clusters of such activity involving more than 1,600 artisanal oil refineries, mostly in Ninewa and Kirkuk governorates.

The workers who the report says were forced to work at these refineries for up to two years, have been exposed to toxic chemicals. In addition, the toxic waste products generated by the burning of crude oil have contaminated the environment around these sites.

The third part of the report focused on the pollution from widespread damage to urban areas, either residential or industrial, in northern Iraq. Cities like Mosul, Ramadi, Tikrit and Fallujah witnessed high levels of destruction, resulting in millions of tonnes of rubble and debris, often mixed with household, medical or industrial wastes.

The clean-up, transport, processing and safe storage of this debris will be difficult and costly, and the workers who will undertake these tasks are set to face health risks in the absence of resources for protective measures.

The damage to agricultural areas was discussed in the fourth axis. Remote sensing and reporting from the ground have identified a pattern of environmental degradation of agricultural lands, before ISIS militants confiscated them, due to poor water management and climate change. This degradation has amplified to a serious degree after ISIS, with some areas witnessing conflict or being abandoned by farmers who fled, resulting in low levels of agricultural production, and the pollution of many areas.

The fifth part of the report detailed concerns by communities. People, mainly residents of northern Iraq, raised bitter complaints with the government about the toxic fallout of military action, calling for an assessment of environmental damage from the pollution they have experienced.

In the town of Qayyarah, in particular, citizens complained of inhaling irritant gases and toxic fumes from the burning oil wells. ISIS militants set fire to 18 oil wells in this area of Mosul, and the fire raged for about nine months.

The government’s initial estimates put the cost of reconstruction and environmental remediation at about US$50 billion. The Iraqi government has included plans for this in a reconstruction project that begins its first phase in early 2018, and is set to continue until 2022. The final stage will run from 2023 until 2028.

This article originally appeared on SciDevNet under a CC-BY licence


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