Crude impact: Cleaning up the ravages of war in Iraq

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