This time was different. I had seen the devastation and destruction that conflicts and disasters cause. I had been on disaster response missions before and the images of the Nepal Earthquake were still fresh in my mind. Now I was on my way to Iraq – a country gutted by years of conflict and an enormous humanitarian crisis. As the country battles the so-called Islamic State (IS) on multiple fronts, Iraq is also trying to prevent what could be one of the worst environmental and humanitarian disasters the world has ever witnessed – the collapse of the Mosul Dam.
Built on a porous geological foundation and in need of urgent repair, the world’s fifth largest dam is also one of the world’s most dangerous. If it fails, more than 500,000 people could die in the floodwaters – far more than the Boxing Day tsunami killed. A 20-metre-high wave of flood water could submerge parts of Iraq’s second largest city within hours, forcing hundreds of thousands of survivors to abandon their homes. The dam’s failure could also lead to serious environmental problems: chemicals, oil, landmines and unexploded ordnance could all be mixed up with the flood waters, leaving behind a toxic legacy as the waters recede. Modelling shows that the flood waters could reach as far south as Baghdad, paralyzing its capital of millions. These multiple threats would require a hugely complex humanitarian response. In Iraq, I worked with the authorities and humanitarian partners to help prepare for this, in case the worst happened.
Once on the ground in Iraq, we managed to get access to the dam itself. At only a short distance from areas held by IS, the enormous dam stood between the reservoir and the famous Tigris River below. It was tempting to believe that this dam – with its length of 3,600m and its height of 135m -- would be far ‘too big to fail’, but investigations into its structural strength indicate the opposite. We met the deputy dam-engineer in his office. He assured us that all efforts were being taken to monitor the stability of the dam and generously showed us around. The Kurdish security forces, known as the Peshmerga, followed us at a discrete distance. In August 2014, the dam was briefly taken over by IS and many of the staff had since left. The machinery needed to carry out routine maintenance was no longer in use. I could see workers from the dam strengthening the anti-erosion banks at the bottom of the dam. As I watched them work, I tried to imagine what the dam’s collapse would look like. I thought back to the time I deployed to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. I can still clearly remember the devastation and misery this disaster caused. If the dam collapses, it would lead to immense displacement, especially if the flood waters reached Baghdad. Mass panic would ensue.
Colleagues in Iraq were already working around the clock. Faced with restricted access due to the security situation, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance was steadily growing due to the on-going military operations in Fallujah. Despite this, the humanitarian appeal launched by the aid organizations had only received one-third of the funding needed to help them reach the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, the potential failure of the dam was on everybody’s mind. How bad could it be? What should we do? How would people be alerted?
It was clear that much was being done to answer these questions and to plan for the worst. The UN Development Programme was busy supporting the Iraqi government to help it build an emergency alert system – they planned to drop leaflets in hard-to-reach areas, use sirens and raise awareness at schools and mosques. A company had been contracted to undertake the emergency repairs. Our focus would be to ensure that systems were already in place to allow incoming assistance (the tents, the water, the emergency medical teams, pumps, you name it) to reach affected populations as fast as possible. Together with a small group of disaster experts from the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team, proposals were made on how to handle the influx of incoming aid. In emergency situations, many lengthy administrative processes need speeding up so that life-saving aid can reach the people in need as fast as possible. For example, visas can take up to three weeks to be issued. It is essential that this time is reduced to 24 hours or less to ensure that specialized personal can enter the country as quickly as possible should disaster strike.
The mission to Iraq proved that there is a growing need for UNEP to be integrated in the humanitarian world. The environment lies at the very heart of many of the world’s most devastating humanitarian disasters. In Iraq, the Joint Environment Unit (JEU) – a special unit set up by the United Nations Environment Programme and OCHA that responds to humanitarian and environmental catastrophes – mapped industrial facilities that lie in the path of the floods. This is vital work for these facilities, if damaged, could pollute drinking water and further complicate the humanitarian response, leaving behind a hellish environmental legacy for future generations. Knowing the locations of these facilities and what hazardous substances they use makes it easier to plan for the provision of drinking water. It also helps assess what safety measures to take.
When UNEP was established in 1972, it was given a “development mandate”. It doesn’t hand out food, water or tents like operational humanitarian organizations to help people affected by disasters. Instead, realizing the importance of mainstreaming the environment in the UN’s humanitarian work, in 1994 it joined forces with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) to establish a Joint Environment Unit. This unit ensures that UNEP’s environmental expertise is available to humanitarian responders dealing with the fallout of chemical spills and other industrial accidents. Since its creation, the unit has supported 87 countries and undertaken 184 technical support missions. Today, the Joint Environment Unit now deploys to the frontlines of some of the world’s worst disaster zones to minimize environmental damage and humanitarian crises.
The world desperately needs to bolster joint environmental-humanitarian teams like the JEU if we are to help some of the most vulnerable people in the world mitigate and adapt to the multiple humanitarian and environmental threats posed by conflict and disasters. Sometimes this means better managing the natural resources that people depend on for their survival. This can be achieved by preventing further deforestation caused by the demand for shelter in countries like Haiti or reducing groundwater depletion from over-pumping by displaced people in places like Darfur. This time, in Iraq, it was about providing technical expertise on man-made disasters to an ongoing, complex humanitarian response operation. The JEU’s 20+ years of experience, as well as its central place in the humanitarian system, has given UNEP a unique opportunity to positively influence humanitarian outcomes. Our support to Iraq was indeed different this time. For once, we were able to make use of the unique window of opportunity to prepare before a disaster strikes, thus reducing the risks from a man-made disaster in the making.
Rene Nijenhuis of the Joint UNEP-OCHA Environment Unit is the author of this story