06 Nov 2017 Story Disasters & conflicts

Erik Solheim: The smog of war

By Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment

The smoke that billowed from the burning oil fields was so thick it blocked out the sun. By the time I reached Qayarrah, where Islamic State fighters had set fire to 18 oil wells, the fires were already out but a film of black soot had settled over the Iraqi town like toxic snow. Even the sheep had turned black.

Pools of thick oil ran in the streets. That pollution was mixed with emissions from a nearby sulfur plant that the extremists had also set on fire as they retreated. Thousands of tons of pure sulfur burned for a full week, spewing as much sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere as a small volcanic eruption. Hundreds of people were hospitalized.

The fires may have been extinguished and the so-called Islamic State ousted from the city, but the environmental devastation caused by the battle for Mosul and its surrounding areas will linger for decades. The destruction of hospitals, weapons factories, industrial plants and power stations has left behind a toxic cocktail of chemicals, heavy metals and other harmful waste. Many of these pollutants are mixed up with unexploded bombs and mines in the vast amount of rubble generated by the fighting.

Snapshot sampling by our teams found high levels of lead and mercury in Qayarrah’s water, and toxic chemicals and explosive agents in Mosul’s soil. We are working with the environmental authorities to confirm the source and extent of this pollution, but it could well be the toxic legacy of one of the fiercest urban battles of the modern age.

Never has it been more important for the world to place the environment at the very heart of how we prevent, solve and respond to conflict.

When we measure the brutality of war we often count the dead bodies, the destroyed homes and the lives upended by violence. Rarely do we pause to consider the environmental devastation that wars cause. The toxic legacy of war is often ignored and with it the long-term damage to the health of millions of people struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives.

There is nothing new in the waste generated by war. Parts of Belgium and France are still suffering from the contamination of heavy metals used in the weapons of World War I. In Vietnam, Agent Orange, a herbicide sprayed to strip trees and thus the enemy of cover, caused birth defects, cancers, skin disorders and mental disability.

When the bombs fall, the environment suffers. In Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, amongst the planet’s richest biodiversity hotspots, decades of war have destroyed some of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems. The mining of gold, a major source of funding for rebel forces in both countries, has polluted their rivers and land with mercury. In Ukraine, three and a half years of fighting in the heavily industrialized country has contaminated the groundwater. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan have destroyed more than half the country’s forests.

Often the environmental destruction is deliberate. Environmental infrastructure is increasingly targeted to drain the enemy of popular support. When power plants, water facilities and sewage systems are destroyed, disease and pollution spread and civilian health plummets, prolonging the suffering of people whose lives have already been devastated by violence.

The world needs to understand that killing the environment means killing ourselves.

Failing to respond appropriately when the bullets stop only generates more environmental calamity. Plans to rebuild Mosul with sand and gravel dredged from the Tigris would be disastrous for a river that irrigates about two thirds of Iraq’s agricultural land and supplies water and electricity to millions of people. Instead, recycling the debris so that it can be used to reconstruct the shattered city would save millions of dollars, limit quarrying and generate 750,000 days of work for some of Mosul’s long-suffering residents.

The environment isn’t just a silent victim of war. When poorly managed, the environment can also trigger and fuel armed conflict. Around the world, natural resources are funding militias, prolonging violence and making it even harder for peace deals to stick.

The wars of tomorrow will increasingly be fought over natural resources as populations boom and supplies of food and water dwindle in parts of the world most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Never has it been more important for the world to place the environment at the very heart of how we prevent, solve and respond to conflict.

There are encouraging signs that the world is beginning to wake up to this need. Social media, smartphones and satellite imagery are making it easier to identify pollution hotspots, allowing governments and aid agencies to respond faster and more effectively to reduce the harm to human health. The UN is drafting new laws to protect the environment during conflict, laws which have barely evolved since the 1970s. And the International Criminal Court may soon try cases that involve the destruction of the environment and the illegal exploitation of natural resources during conflict.

In December, UN Environment will host the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi. Curbing pollution – in all its insidious, life-threatening forms – will dominate the agenda.

Today, 6 November, has been chosen by the UN General Assembly as a day on which people around the world should take a moment to acknowledge the complex relationship between the environment and armed conflict. The day also presents us with an opportunity to look for new ways to reduce the collateral damage of conflicts and protect the natural resources that sustain affected communities. At UN Environment, we are using the day as an opportunity to launch a new open online course on environmental security and sustaining peace.

If we continue to ignore the environmental toll of conflict, then we will continue to perpetuate the misery of war and prolong the suffering of those caught in the crossfire. The world needs to understand that killing the environment means killing ourselves.