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We watch war destroying the environment, but we should be acting instead

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Shortly after the start of armed operations to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), 19 oil wells have been set ablaze by retreating armed groups south of the city. UNEP under a Creative Commons Licence

The battle of Mosul proves of the catastrophic impact of war on our environment. This UN day on conflict and the environment, it’s time to act against it, writes Doug Weir.

'This ongoing ecocide is a recipe for a prolonged disaster.' Last week’s intervention from executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Erik Solheim on the unfolding environmental and humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq, was a stark reminder that war has a catastrophic impact not just on indigenous societies – it also causes appalling damage to the environment.

And not just to ecosystems. As Islamic State set oil wells on fire during the battle of Mosul, skies blackened above the city, threatening the health of civilians stuck in city and of those already displaced, as well as humanitarian workers and military personnel.

For the first time in two decades, conflict and the environment is back on the global political agenda and, as the clouds above Mosul ably demonstrate, it needs to stay on it

The fact that it was Islamic State that started the oil well fires and that set a sulphur factory alight – apparently using both as a weapon of war – illustrates that the actions of states and non-state actors alike threaten the environment during conflicts and with it the health and livelihoods of civilians.


Sulfur dioxide spreads in the air in northwest Iraq on 24 October, after Islamic State set a sulphur factory alight. Nasa Earth Observatory

When the damage is this arresting, when the testimony of its victims so vivid, it seems commonplace to emphasize the link between conflict and the environment.

But we have been here before.

We commemorate the barren wastelands of the Somme; we give pause to consider an ecosystem and population poisoned by dioxin in South East Asia; we remember Iraq in 1991 as the oil wells burned; Serbia in 1999 when toxic industrial chemicals flowed down the Danube; we have watched in the DRC as timber and minerals have fuelled and prolonged its conflict; we recall Lebanon in 2006 as an oil slick coated its beaches.

More recently, we have watched in Ukraine as fighting erupted in the middle of one of the most industrialised regions on Earth; we have watched as Russian and Coalition forces bombed Syria’s oil infrastructure, while its citizens risk their own health to refine fuel to meet their daily needs; and we have watched the predictable collapse, in the wake of one conflict after another, of environmental governance and sustainable development.

We watch. We watch because the environment is big, because it’s complicated, because it’s hard, and because environmental problems are 'cross-cutting issues' and so nobody’s responsibility. We watch because we struggle to make the link between environmental quality and peoples’ lives.

Time to act

Sunday 6 November is the UN day on conflict and the environment. It is just one of many UN annual days. Nevertheless, since 2001 it has served as a platform for raising awareness of the environmental damage associated with armed conflicts.

In recent years, the day has gone by largely unnoticed and unremarked, but 2016 has been a little different to the years that preceded it.

In May, governments at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi adopted by consensus a far-reaching resolution on the protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict. The last time anything like this happened was in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, as the financial, health and environmental costs of its oil fires were still being counted.

For the first time in two decades, conflict and the environment is back on the global political agenda and, as the clouds above Mosul ably demonstrate, it needs to stay on it.


Satellite images show the consequences for the environment of ISIS's attempt to defend land around Mosul, Iraq by setting fire to oil wells during the summer. Single frames by Nasa Earth Observatory

This has happened twice before. Following the Vietnam War, international law was developed that was intended to protect the environment from widespread destruction during conflict. A considerable achievement for sure, but this protection has subsequently proved to be inadequate, and compliance has been poor. After the 1991 Gulf War, NGOs urged governments to pursue a system that would provide greater protection. The Red Cross tentatively proposed new guidelines for militaries. But neither states nor civil society ultimately proved interested in fighting for genuine progress.

So instead, we went back to watching.

But we have also learned how the environment is shaped by humanity’s interactions with it. Since the 1990s, UNEP and its sister agencies, academia and civil society have assessed and documented the environmental damage caused by numerous conflicts, and the conditions that preceded or followed them. New tools and technologies are making it easier than ever before to monitor environmental harm and its effects on civilians.

Because we have learned, we are undoubtedly far better placed than we were in either of the two historical periods of interest on conflict and the environment to sustain the advocacy necessary for change.

But will we act? Warfare will never – can never – be 'green', but can we work to minimise the harm that it causes? Can we imagine systems that ensure that the damage that is done is properly addressed and remedied, and its victims assisted? And how can public scrutiny of conflicts help to deter the most destructive military behaviours?

Answering these questions will require the input of all those with a stake in the outcome; the states that have suffered or are at risk from environment damage; the communities that face or have faced the environmental consequences of war. It will require leadership from governments and from UN agencies, and above all, it will require the sustained engagement of civil society.

It is here that the breadth and cross-cutting nature of the environment becomes an asset. For biodiversity or conservation NGOs, what happens before, during and after conflicts matters to ecosystems. For human rights NGOs, wartime environmental damage impacts the fundamental rights they strive to protect. For humanitarian NGOs, the delivery and sustainability of their programmes are intimately linked to environmental quality. For development NGOs, the use and abuse of environmental resources during and after conflict is a key challenge for stability and for sustainable development.

Enhancing the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts is a huge task, and past efforts to achieve this goal have failed because we watched when we should have acted. In considering the decades’ long deterioration of Iraq’s environment from conflicts, UNEP’s Solheim argued that the environment needs to be placed at the centre of crisis response, of conflict prevention and conflict resolution

Delivering this will require political will, effort, and the forging of new partnerships between governments, UN agencies and civil society.

The alternative? We just keep watching.

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project, part of a global coalition of NGOs advocating for a greater standard of environmental and civilian protection before, during and after armed conflict. The project is on Twitter: @detoxconflict.

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