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Crude impact: Cleaning up the ravages of war in Iraq

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Oilfields burned by Islamic State fighters are seen in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq November 23, 2016. REUTERS / Goran Tomasevic

Each year, 06 November marks the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. We report on one of the biggest challenges facing UNEP and its partners – the post-war clean-up of Iraq.

Vast jet-black plumes of smoke curling upwards into the sky, blocking out the sun. Crude oil flowing through the streets.  These were some of the environmental footprints left by ISIL/Da’esh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in northern and western Iraq.

Oil wells and mineral stockpiles were torched, particularly during the Mosul offensive in the spring of 2016. Water barrages were blown up. So thick were the clouds of smoke that for the inhabitants day became night.

This lasted for weeks. Locals dubbed it the “Da’esh winter” despite the sizzling mid-summer heat. Nowhere was this more visible than in Qayyarah, a town of about 25,000 beside the Tigris River, some 60 kilometres south of Mosul.

Four years later, residents continue to suffer. Slowly, however, life is on the mend again. A clean-up of these oil-polluted areas is under way with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners.

“We must not forget that people continue to suffer from this pollution.  We must not lose sight of how this fuels uncertainty and anxiety over their health and livelihoods. The environment has long been a silent victim of Iraq’s decades of conflict, and it is important that contaminated areas are cleaned up so that people can live in their homes in safety and dignity,” said the Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq/Resident Coordinator, Ms. Irena Vojáčková-Sollorano. 

“UNEP is collaborating with Iraq’s ministries of oil and environment, to trial a number of clean-up techniques on oil-contaminated sites,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director. These techniques harness naturally-occurring soil bacteria to decontaminate poisoned land.”

Initial feedback from the environment ministry report a 77 per cent success rate using such techniques.

While initially, a substantial part of the oil had solidified, many of these spills became viscous and turned to liquid again under Iraq’s soaring summer temperatures which can reach well over 50 degrees Celsius.  

Every subsequent year, this re-created large oil pools amid Qayyarah’s crowded neighbourhoods. People had no choice but to continue to farm and graze livestock on lands visibly contaminated with oil.

“The affordable bio-remediation solutions that we are rolling out in Iraq need to be massively scaled up, so that people living in polluted areas can rebuild and thrive,” said Inger Andersen.

Iraq’s Environment Ministry is also collaborating with oil companies to clean-up oil-contaminated sites in three locations, including in the major oil producing regions of southern Iraq. It has also issued licenses to private companies to carryout bio-remediation work.

UN Environment

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Environment

UNESCO ‘eDNA’ initiative to ‘unlock’ knowledge for biodiversity protection

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To understand the richness of biodiversity across World Heritage marine sites, the UN scientific organization launched on Monday a project to protect and preserve biodiversity, based on the study of environmental DNA – cellular material released from living things into their surroundings. 

Launching the new programme, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that scientists and local residents would take samples of genetic material from fish waste, mucous membranes or cells, eDNA, to monitor species. 

Marine World Heritage sites play a critical role in protecting marine ecosystems of exceptional universal value and provide opportunities for the public to appreciate and preserve marine environments”, reminded UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone Ramírez. 

Species under threat 

UNESCO said that the two-year initiative would help measure the vulnerability of marine biodiversity to climate change and its impact on the distribution and migration patterns of marine life across World Heritage sites. 

The eDNA project, which involves collecting and analyzing samples from the environment – such as soil, water and air – rather than an individual organism, will also better monitor and protect endangered species included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.  

Climate change is affecting the behaviour and distribution of underwater life and we must understand what is happening so we can adapt our conservation efforts to evolving conditions”, explained the UNESCO official. 

Beneath the waves 

UNESCO’s marine World Heritage sites are recognized for their unique biodiversity, outstanding ecosystems, or for representing major stages in Earth’s history.  

In the context of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), the project was launched to contribute to the understanding of global trends and knowledge to preserve marine ecosystems. 

Since 1981, when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was inscribed at UNESCO’s first marine site, a global network of 50 others are now included as “beacons of hope for healing the ocean”, according to the UN agency. 

Guided by expert support, the eDNA project will engage local citizens to gather material, so samples such as particles gathered through water filtering, can be genetically sequenced in specialized laboratories, without having to disturb animals themselves.   

Implemented by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and World Heritage Centre, IOC chief Vladimir Ryabinin described the project as “a step toward the Ocean Decade’s vision of unlocking the knowledge we need to create the ocean we want by 2030”. 

Breaking new ground 

The use of eDNA in ocean monitoring and data collection is still in its infancy and standard protocols for sampling and data management will be streamlined in UNESCO’s groundbreaking eDNA project.  

For the first time, it will apply a consistent methodology across multiple marine protected areas simultaneously, helping establish global standards, data monitoring and management practices while making that information available to the public. 

All data will be processed and published by the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS), the world’s largest open-access data system on the distribution and diversity of marine species, maintained and collectively supported by a worldwide network of scientists, data managers and users.  

Sustainability goal 

The project works to advance the world’s understanding of life in the ocean, and establish conservation and management policies indicators.   

“eDNA sampling can provide an innovative, affordable, and long-awaited capacity to better understand the ocean ecosystems, their composition and behaviour, and to start managing ocean resources more sustainably”, said Mr. Ryabinin. 

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Act Urgently to Preserve Biodiversity for Sustainable Future — ADB President

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The world must act urgently to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity for the sake of a sustainable future and prosperity, Asian Development Bank (ADB) President Masatsugu Asakawa said at the opening of a global event on biodiversity here today.

“The world is at a critical turning point. If we are to reverse the alarming decline in nature, we must respond with urgency and coordinated action,” Mr. Asakawa said. “These efforts are needed to ensure the survival of our ecosystems, and for the sake of our shared future and prosperity.”  

Asia and the Pacific is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world—home to 17 of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots, 7 of the 17 megadiverse countries, and the greatest marine diversity. “If restored and well-managed, these natural capital assets can help to mitigate global climate change and biodiversity loss in a cost-effective and impactful manner,” Mr. Asakawa said in his opening remarks at the Ecological Civilization Forum at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Kunming, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  

The event is cohosted by the PRC’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Yunnan provincial government, and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Participants include high-level representatives from governments, the private sector, development agencies including ADB, and civil society. 

ADB is committed to helping accelerate and increase nature-positive investments in Asia and the Pacific. “Through our ADB Nature-Positive Investment Roadmap, we are working with partners to scale up finance, develop knowledge of natural capital, and generate financially sustainable projects that deliver on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems,” Mr. Asakawa said.

At COP15, ADB is launching a new publication, Greening Development in the People’s Republic of China, which outlines how ADB and the PRC have successfully partnered to promote green development and ecological restoration in a way that complements economic and social priorities. 

In partnership with the Chinese Academy of Science and Stanford University, ADB is sharing progress on its new Natural Capital Lab due for launch in 2022. This will be a digital platform for sharing methods for valuing biodiversity and ecosystems, and for building knowledge, capacities, and alliances across the region.  

In addition, ADB with partners will be launching the Regional Flyway Initiative that will conserve ecosystem services that support people and critical habitats for more than 50 million migratory waterbirds.

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Greenpeace Africa reacts to DRC President’s decision to suspend illegal logging concessions

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forest

The President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Félix Tshisekedi, ordered on Friday, October 15th, the suspension of all dubious logging concessions, including the 6 granted in September 2020. Greenpeace Africa, one of the civil society organizations that denounced these concessions, applauds the decision taken by the Head of State and encourages him to remain vigilant and ensure its effective execution by Deputy Prime Minister Ms. Eve Bazaiba.

Greenpeace Africa reiterates its call for maintaining the moratorium on new industrial logging concessions to prevent a human rights and climate catastrophe. This logging sector, characterized by bad governance, favors corruption and remains out of touch with the socio-economic needs of the Congolese people and the climate crisis we live in.

Irène Wabiwa Betoko, Head of the International Congo Basin Forest Project of Greenpeace: “The decision of H.E. President Tshisekedi against the illegal actions of former Minister Nyamugabo sends an important message to the Congolese people and their government. It is also a red light for the plans of Ms. Ève Bazaiba, current Minister of the Environment, to open a highway to deforestation by multinational logging companies through lifting the moratorium on new industrial concessions.”

The President asks to “Suspend all questionable contracts pending the outcome of an audit and report them to the government at the next cabinet meeting.” Greenpeace Africa maintains that the review of illegalities in the forest sector must be transparent, independent, and open to comments from civil society organizations.

Ms. Wabiwa adds that “Both the protection of the rights of Congolese peoples and the success of COP26 require that the moratorium on granting new forest titles be strengthened. We again call on President Tshisekedi to strengthen the 2005 presidential decree to extend the moratorium.”

Ms. Wabiwa concludes that “instead of allowing new avenues of destruction, the DRC needs a permanent forest protection plan, taking into account the management by the local and indigenous populations who live there and depend on them for their survival.”

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