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.
How countries can tackle devastating peatland wildfires
Today, a major wildfire in France has destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and forced many people to flee their homes. Meanwhile, dry weather, extreme heat and strong winds have combined to fan wildfires across Europe, the United States and other parts of the world over the last few weeks.
Extreme wildfires are devastating to people, biodiversity and ecosystems. They also exacerbate climate change by contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.
While Europe and North America are in the crosshairs now, earlier this year, large parts of Chile and Argentina were engulfed in flames. That includes vast tracts of peatlands, key stores of carbon which, when released, feed planetary warming.
We asked Jacqueline Alvarez, head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, to tell us more about the drivers of peatland wildfires and what can be done to limit their spread next year.
A recent report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, by UNEP and GRID-Arendal, finds that climate change and land-use changes, like deforestation, are making wildfires worse. Are those problems contributing to fires in Argentina and Chile?
Jacqueline Alvarez (JA): Yes. The changing climate has created a troubling reality, yet we shouldn’t undervalue the fact that people cause most wildfires. Beyond natural causes, there is evidence that the fires are being intentionally set to deforest and clear land for speculative businesses. In Argentina, the National Fire Management Service shows in its daily reports that since August 2021, 95 per cent of fires have been due to human intervention.
However, climate change is certainly increasing the vulnerability of peatlands to fire, which is problematic as when peatlands burn, they release more carbon dioxide than many other ecosystems and can be extremely difficult to extinguish. Land use changes due to human activity also have profound impacts on peatlands, which can greatly increase their vulnerability to more frequent and intense wildfires.
Which areas are most at risk in Chile?
JA: The areas where human populations and plant ecosystems coexist are those with the highest risk of wildfires. About 60 per cent of wildfires are in these areas, mainly in central Chile around Valparaíso and La Araucanía, which comprise about 5 per cent of national territory but accommodate around 80 per cent of the population. For this reason, these are priority areas when establishing strategies for the management and design of less risky landscapes. From 2010 to 2020, the central-southern zone of Chile, home to much of Chile’s peatland area, experienced a mega-drought that has had a strong impact on the wildfire regime by drying out biomass and peat soils.
Earlier this year, peatland wildfires in Chilean Tierra del Fuego burned for over a month and destroyed 1,200 hectares of native forest. The blazes killed plants and animals, and spewed carbon into the air. It has been suggested that faster action at the central level could have prevented the fire from reaching such a scale. What do you think Latin America and the Caribbean can do as a region to foster coordinated and rapid responses to wildfires?
JA: A coordinated approach requires planned, permanent, systematic and joint work, with special focus on communities directly exposed to this threat. In this context, the prevention of wildfires should be aimed at the population that lives in risk areas. However, appropriate funding is needed for such efforts. Effective fire response also requires an understanding of the ecosystem in question, its vulnerability or adaptation to fire, the amount of available fuel, the assets, infrastructure and lives at risk, and the likelihood of a fire outbreak developing into a wildfire. It’s important to promote regional networks for collaboration, especially among countries with similar ecosystems and threats.
What kinds of legal protection do peatlands have in Argentina, Chile and Peru?
JA: There is no specific legal protection for peatlands in these countries. In the case of Peru, which has extensive peatlands, an important advance has been made within a recent decree on the protection of wetlands, where special mention is made of peatlands, prohibiting the extraction of peat for commercial purposes. In Chile there is a draft law on peatlands prohibiting the extraction of pompón, the Chilean name for sphagnum moss, currently in the final phase of approval. In July 2021, lawmakers in Argentina began debating the creation of a law to regulate human interventions in wetlands. In South America, there is an urgent need for countries to enact strong, dedicated environmental protection laws for wetlands.
What are the key knowledge gaps that need to be filled to inform policymaking better?
JA: One of the problems is that many policymakers are unaware of the significant socioeconomic benefits that peatlands offer. They are a habitat for many unique and threatened species, they regulate water cycles, they control pollution and sediments, they serve as a source of water and locally harvested products, and they are an inspiration for art, religion and cultural values. A lack of information means that political decisions on land use are leading to the degradation and conversion of these high-carbon ecosystems. Peatlands need to be recognized across levels of governance as a high-priority ecosystem for urgent action by policymakers given that they benefit the climate, people and biodiversity.
How sustainable living can help counter the climate crisis
To combat the climate crisis and secure a safe future below 1.5°C, the world needs to cut emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gasses by 50 per cent within the decade.
For many, ambitious targets such as this can induce a sense of dread and paralysis. But experts say there is a lot we can do as individuals to counter climate change.
Research shows that lifestyle changes could help the planet slash emissions by up to 70 per cent by 2050.
We sat down with Garrette Clark, an expert in sustainable living with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to learn more about what people and policymakers can do to make sustainable choices to help secure a healthier planet.
Why is it important for people to consider their individual impact on the planet?
Garrette Clark (GC): We’re facing a triple planetary crisis that threatens our survival, so our impact on the natural world is an obvious concern. An increasing number of people know this but tend to avoid acting on it as the problem can seem abstract, they don’t know what to do, and they have more immediate priorities.
How do our choices as consumers impact the planet?
GC: First, we need to understand that consumers are not only individuals. Great drivers of consumption are businesses and governments, who structure and influence the systems that meet our needs. So, it’s important that people make more informed decisions and ask governments and business to take action. UNEP recently launched Act Now: Speak Up, a campaign that showcases how citizens can compel governments and businesses to up their climate game.
What does a sustainable lifestyle look like in 2022?
GC: I think we hear the word sustainable everywhere these days. We think of sustainable living as the positive things we can do in our daily lives to live better. But given the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies, we need to be clear on what those actions are and ensure that everyone needs to be taking them.
If someone wants to live more sustainably, where can they start?
GC: UNEP has made this super easy with the Anatomy of Action, an online media tool which translates the science into action. It all comes down to five domains: food, mobility, stuff, money and fun. In each of those areas, the top three things people could do are highlighted. Now they can be different depending on where and how they live and resources available, but within these three priority actions, there are opportunities for people to take action.
People around the world are talking about what’s known as the 1.5°C lifestyle, a way of living that aims to keep alive the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC, considered a red line for the planet. Can you tell us more about that ethos?
GC: The 1.5°C lifestyles idea is tied to evidence and what we know about how individuals, governments and business consume. We know we have to change our consumption in the areas of food, mobility, housing and leisure, and we need to change quickly and drastically. 1.5°C living is a guide for change.
How do you convince someone to change the way they live?
GC: In general, people don’t think about how they impact the planet – positively or negatively – and will tend to act if something is easy, accessible, affordable and attractive. That’s why government and business, who are better placed to make systemic changes, are critical to making sustainable living the default option.
What will it take for sustainable living to become the norm?
GC: In addition to the affordability, accessibility and attractiveness of sustainable goods and services, there must be a broader integration of sustainable living into cultural norms so that people don’t think about it as being special but just as the way it goes. If sustainable living practices were featured more in the media stories we’re exposed to, they would become the standard.
What’s one example of that?
GC: If in TV series and movies we saw more vegetarian protagonists eating right-sized meals of tasty, plant-based dishes, swapping proteins would be normalized and desirable. Making sustainable living the new normal means looking at the forces that influence and shape our aspirations and behaviors and integrating sustainability into them.
Some people might wonder: Why should I make sacrifices if my neighbour isn’t?
GC. To counteract the others-don’t-act-why should-I? attitude, all the actors involved — businesses, governments and civil society —should be aligned on the impactful actions to be taken. The evidence is there. The challenge is to enhance understanding and weave together the multitude of actions in a concerted fashion to harness the power of people for change.
Using nature and data to weather coastal storms
Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, sometimes with tragic consequences. Europe’s coastal cities are preparing to meet the challenges with help from nature and data from outer space.
As the people of La Faute-Sur-Mer – a small French coastal town in the Vendée north of La Rochelle – tucked into bed on the night of 27 February 2010, a violent storm was raging out at sea.
Swirling, cyclonic winds, high waves and heavy rain blown up across the Bay of Biscay combined with a high spring tide to wreak havoc as it battered the coastline of western France. Residents awoke to a scene of utter devastation.
Perched perilously between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the river Lay on the other, the town was completely inundated by flooding from the storm surge. Homes, property and businesses were ruined.
Of the 53 people in France who died as a result of Storm Xynthia, 29 were from La Faute.
In a town with a population of just 1000 people, it was a devastating tragedy.
Such extreme weather events are becoming more common and seaside regions are particularly vulnerable, says Dr Clara Armaroli, a coastal geomorphologist who specializes in coastal dynamics (how coastlines evolve).
In response, the University School for Advanced Studies (IUSS) in Pavia, Italy, is leading a pan-European project to develop an early-warning system to increase coastal resilience. Armaroli coordinates the project, called the European Copernicus Coastal Flood Awareness System (ECFAS).
‘Given climate change and sea-level rise, we know there will be an increase in the tendency and the magnitude of coastal storms,’ Dr Armaroli said.
‘What’s needed is an awareness system at a European level to inform decisions.’
ECFAS has been set up to develop a proof-of-concept for an early-warning system for coastal flooding. It will develop a functional and operational design.
It draws on data and uses tools from the EU’s Copernicus Earth observation satellites and from the Copernicus Services.
Central to this is how data about storm surges, magnitude of flooding and potential impact could be incorporated into the EU’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service (Copernicus EMS).
Copernicus EMS is a space-based monitoring service for Europe and the globe that uses satellite data to spot signs of impending disaster, whether from forest fires, droughts or river flooding.
Coastal flooding is not yet part of the Copernicus emergency management mix so ECFAS wants to ‘plug the gap’ says Armaroli.
This will ensure that coastal flooding is monitored in future and that such vulnerabilities become part of its watching brief.
In addition to charting the progression of storms that break on Europe’s coastlines, the ECFAS team is integrating data about the changes to shorelines caused by coastal erosion. It’s a growing concern as sea-levels rise across the globe.
‘The vulnerability and exposure of our coastal areas are also increasing due to erosion, which is narrowing the boundary between the land and the sea,’ said Dr Armaroli.
The early-warning system will gather data from an array of sources, all of which impact flood risk. This includes geographic factors such as land use and cover, soil type, tidal changes, wave components and sea levels.
It is being designed to provide forecasts for coastal storm hazards up to five days out. Potentially, it could work in tandem with pre-existing regional and national systems to improve local defenses.
Looking beyond the proof-of-concept stage, Armaroli hopes ECFAS-Warning for coastal awareness can play a critical role in helping areas better prepare for when disaster strikes.
‘Our work has started a process, but in the future, we hope this can really help increase the resilience of our coastal areas to the coming extreme weather events,’ she said.
On the west coast of Ireland, in the Atlantic seaport town of Sligo, an environmental engineer named Dr Salem Gharbia is taking the challenges faced by coastal cities to the next level.
With the project – SCORE – Smart Control of the Climate Resilience in European Cities – Dr Gharbia’s team is building a network of ‘living labs’ to rapidly and sustainably enhance local resilience to coastal damage.
‘Coastal cities face major challenges currently because they are so densely populated and because their location makes them vulnerable to sea-level rise and climate change,’ he said.
With SCORE’s network of 10 coastal cities – from Sligo to Benidorm, Dublin to Gdańsk – Dr Gharbia intends to create an integrated solution that should help coastal centres to mitigate the risks.
‘The main idea behind the concept is that we have coastal cities learning from each other,’ he said.
‘Each living lab faces different local challenges,’ he said, ‘But each has been established to include citizens, local stakeholders, engineers, and scientists to co-create solutions that can increase local resilience.’
Through the network, SCORE wants to pioneer nature-based solutions such as the restoration of floodplains or wetlands that reduce the risk of flooding in coastal regions. It’s a model that is already proving effective.
One example, a project to bio-engineer sand dunes in Sligo for stronger natural defenses, is also being tested in Portugal.
The team is developing smart technologies to monitor and evaluate emerging coastal risks. In addition to using existing Earth observation data, this means the community can become involved through new citizen science projects aimed at expanding local data collection.
In Sligo, locals are already getting involved in the monitoring of coastal erosion using what Dr Gharbia terms ‘DIY sensors’ – drone kites – equipped with cameras, to survey local topography.
Elsewhere, citizens are helping to monitor and record water levels and quality, as well as wind speed and direction with a variety of other sensors.
Sustaining local citizen involvement in this way is crucial to SCORE’s success, said Gharbia.
‘It’s essential that this is two-way for citizens,’ he said.
Without engaging them fully in the process of co-design and co-creation of ideas to mitigate risks, you will never get them committed to the types of solution proposed.’
All of this, of course, is creating a wealth of new data from a multitude of sources. But Dr Gharbia is adamant that an integrated approach is critical.
‘The main reason we’re developing this system is,’ he said, ‘We’ve realised that to increase climate resilience we have to utilise all the information coming in from different sources.’
Ultimately, the goal behind the work is for a real-time, early warning system that could be used by local and regional policy makers to test a range of ‘what if’ scenarios.
Currently, the team are categorising the data and optimising the systems and models. In time, they hope other regions can learn from the approach and develop similar living labs.
Dr Gharbia said the impact of his research project should be ‘to create an integrated solution that can be used in multiple different locations and can make a big impact in increasing local coastal resilience.’
Resilience like it should spread far and wide. ‘The main purpose is a solution that can be replicated and scaled up,’ said Dr Gharbia. The tragic consequences of more frequent and more intense coastal storms must be averted.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
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