As the focus in Iraq begins to shift from fighting to rebuilding, international groups are calling for environmental fixes to be part of the overall plan.
“When a country needs a great deal of reconstruction, it’s very important to include environmental issues in the strategic planning,” said Michael Williams, an information officer with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) based in Amman.
The post-war environmental issues in a country like Iraq have very little to do with conservation and the protection of threatened plant and animal species, and everything to do with rebuilding infrastructure and environmental cleanup.
“The things you fix first are those that address basic health needs, and that means getting the water and electrical systems working,” said Henry Lee, director of the Kennedy School’s Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard University. “Bombing tends to allow water and sewage systems to get mixed together, and people are going to get very sick. You also need the electrical system to operate irrigation systems so you can feed people, which is especially important in Iraq where you have had the government feeding people.”
Beyond the immediate needs of food and water, Iraq faces a multitude of long term issues, arising from both direct damage from the war and years of neglect. Establishing environmental management systems to deal with hazardous waste, water and sewage treatment, ground contamination, and air pollution has none of the glamour of saving exotic animals from extinction. But the nitty-gritty work of writing regulations, establishing monitoring regimens, training personnel, and developing enforcement procedures are the likely focus of environmental efforts in the coming years.
Legacy of Aerial and Naval Bombardment
Large scale aerial and naval bombardment targeting urban infrastructure, weapons facilities, and petrochemical, industrial, and chemical storage plants escalate the long-term environmental consequences of war significantly.
“Hazardous waste disposal is difficult any time,” said Williams. “When factories that produce toxic waste—fertilizers, wood pulp, paper, pharmaceuticals; there are any number of examples—are destroyed by bombing or shelling, the problems are even greater.”
Depending on the scale of contamination, the effects on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the Mesopotamian marshes, farmlands, and aquatic ecosystems in southern Iraq could be severe, affecting weather systems, solar radiation, and food chains.
Even in the desert waste is a problem. The amount of human waste, garbage, and toxic materials generated by thousands of coalition troops as they crossed the desert, setting up fuel and supply depots, is enormous. The only way to get rid of it is by burying it in pits, creating a real need for continued long term monitoring to assess the possibility of ground water contamination.
“Continuous monitoring of both ground and surface water for signs of contamination will need to be an essential aspect of any reconstruction plan,” said Williams.
Iraqi public health workers are particularly concerned about the use of armaments that incorporate depleted uranium. When a shell hits a tank—both of which could contain DU—a fiery hole is burned through the armor and DU, which is slightly radioactive, is oxidized and released into the environment.
The U.S. military has studied the health effects of DU extensively, and maintains that there are no serious long term health consequences. Iraqi health care workers disagree.
“Iraqi doctors believe childhood cancer rates and birth defects have increased dramatically since 1991, and attribute it to depleted uranium,” said Michael McCally, a professor of public health and preventive medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. “I’m not convinced they can draw that conclusion. But when we were there in January, every public health worker we spoke with brought it up and believes it.”
Land Mines and Refugees
The region in the north separating Kurdish Iraq from Baghdad-controlled Iraq, and the borders with Iran and Kuwait are all heavily seeded with land mines and unexploded ordnance as a consequence of the Gulf War, the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War, and two decades of internal conflict. The Mine Advisory Group (MAG), the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in 1997, estimates that there are between 8 to 12 million landmines and an unspecified number of unexploded mortars, shells, grenades and other deadly war debris in the country. The organization has removed more than 91,000 mines and almost 346,000 unexploded ordnance in northern Iraq since it began working there in 1992.
Although not much is known about land mines in south and central Iraq, a survey conducted in 2001 by the International Committee of the Red Cross identified cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance as significant threats to the populations of those regions.
These numbers will increase as the result of the current conflict.
“The country is littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance of all sizes and types, and will, predictably, kill and injure children and wildlife for years to come,” said McCally. Farmers and domestic livestock are also frequent victims.
In addition to the threat to local communities, a confidential UN document issued in December 2002 warned that the minefields would constitute “a formidable hazard to refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons).”
Land mines and refugee and IDP populations may be seen by some as humanitarian issues, but both can heavily impact the environment.
Jennifer Leaning, a professor of international health at Harvard University, in an analysis of war’s impact on the environment, points out that land mines accelerate environmental damage indirectly by forcing people to move from fertile areas to marginal lands that are environmentally fragile, and an inevitable loss of biodiversity. The land mines impact the environment directly when the explosions disrupt essential soil and water processes.
Studies in Mozambique, Sudan, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas show that refugee camps are associated with deforestation, encroachment on vulnerable ecosystems and protected areas, water pollution, sanitation degradation, air pollution, and loss of endangered species.
Cleaning Up after War
Obstacles to the clean up are enormous. Funding for environment activities has been included in the United Nation’s (US)$2.2 billion Flash Appeal for emergency assistance funds it estimates will be needed for the next six months. But international aid agencies are already pressed for funds. A dozen countries are clamoring for reparations for past damages to the tune of (US)$79 billion. Thus far the United Nations has awarded $1.9 billion.
The dearth of educated and well-trained personnel will present problems. As will the lack of perception of the environment as a priority.
“In all the years I’ve been consulting in the Middle East, I can’t recall the environment ever being on the agenda,” said Lee. “It’s not held to be as much of a priority. If you mention it, they say ‘Oh yes, the environment, we care,’ but that’s about as far as it goes. The only issue they do talk about is climate change, which they consider a western conspiracy to deprive them of income.”