Civilians in Northern Iraq are falling victim to additional suffering - including near suffocation and respiratory illnesses - due to what appears to be a scorched-earth policy employed by retreating ISIL militants following the launch of a major military offensive to retake the city of Mosul.
Nineteen oil wells have been set ablaze by armed groups near Al Qayyarah, located south-east of Mosul, with citizens and armed forces exposed to toxic fumes. The burning crude oil produces a wide range of pollutants, including soot and gases that cause health problems such as skin irritation and shortness of breath.
Late last week, stockpiles of sulphur dioxide stored at the Mishraq Sulphate Factory caught fire, leading to a large toxic cloud plume spreading over dozens of kilometres. The Directorate of Health, supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), treated over 1000 cases of suffocation in Qayyarah, Ijhala, and Makhmour primary health care centres.
UN Environment, through the Joint Environment Unit it runs with the UN Office for the Coordination Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), put responders in touch with hazardous materials experts, who provided technical advice on dealing with the fire. On 23 October a water plant was reportedly affected by fighting, leading to a chlorine gas leak for which around 100 civilians sought medical treatment.
'This is sadly just the latest episode in what has been the wholesale destruction of Iraq's environment over several decades - from the draining of the marshlands to the contamination of land and the collapse of environmental management systems,' said UN Environment chief Erik Solheim.
'This ongoing ecocide is a recipe for a prolonged disaster. It makes living conditions dangerous and miserable, if not impossible. It will push countless people to join the unprecedented global refugee population. That's why the environment needs to be placed at the centre of crisis response, conflict prevention and conflict resolution.'
Minimizing the damage to environment from armed conflict remains a priority for UN Environment. The organization is working closely with partners in Iraq like OCHA, WHO, the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) - which has provided support to mapping smoke plumes during the offensive to minimize harmful impacts of chemical hazards in humanitarian response.
The events highlight the need to prepare for environmental health impacts as part of humanitarian action and crisis response, a topic UN Environment will continue working on - including at the 2017 Environment and Emergencies Forum taking place in Nairobi next June.
Member states and non-state actors need to take all measures to comply with existing international law on the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict, a responsibility highlighted in a number of UN and UN Environment resolutions. The General Assembly 'Protection of the environment in times of armed conflict' (A/RES/47/37), urges States to take all measures to ensure compliance with existing international law applicable to the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict, with the General Assembly resolution 'Observance of the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict' (A/RES/56/4) also noting the importance of this topic. Most recently, the UN Environment Assembly adopted the resolution 'Protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict' (UNEP/EA.2/Res.15), highlighting the role of UN Environment to support Member States in addressing these challenges.