We watch war destroy the environment. But we must do something.

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We watch war destroy the environment. But we must do something.

By Doug Weir


Islamic State set on fire 19 oil wells south of Mosul, in Iraq, after action started to take back Mosul from IS, UNEP under a Creative Commons Licence

Sunday 6 November is the UN day for the effects of war on the environment. The battle of Mosul shows this. It is time to do something, writes Doug Weir.

Islamic State set oil wells on fire during the battle of Mosul. The skies were black over the city. This is a danger for the health of people in the city and those forced to move, and the humanitarian workers and the military.


Sulfur dioxide in the air in northwest Iraq on 24 October, after Islamic State set a sulphur factory on fire. Nasa Earth Observatory

But we have seen this problem before in the past.

We remember the Somme. We think about how dioxin poisoned the environment and the people in South East Asia. We remember Iraq in 1991 as the oil wells burned. In Serbia in 1999 industrial chemicals poisoned the River Danube. In Lebanon in 2006 oil covered the beaches.

More recently, we watched the war in the Ukraine, one of the most industrialised countries. We watched Russia and Coalition forces bomb Syria’s oil as its people risk their health to make fuel for every day needs. And after one war and another we watched the terrible effect on the environment and sustainable development. We watch because it is difficult to make the link between the environment and peoples’ lives.

Time to do something

Sunday 6 November is the UN day on war and the environment. It is one of many UN days. But since 2001 this day has helped us to remember the terrible effect of war on the environment.

Often no one really notices this day but 2016 is a little different. In May 2016, at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi governments agreed on a plan to protect the environments affected by war. The last time there was a problem like this was after the Gulf War in 1991 with the effects of the oil fires on finance, health, and the environment.

For the first time in twenty years, war and the environment is back in the attention of world politics. And it must stay in the attention of world politics, as we watch the black skies over Mosul.


Satellite pictures show the effects on the environment as ISIS tries to defend land around Mosul, Iraq. It set on fire oil wells during the summer. Single frames by Nasa Earth Observatory

We had this problem twice before. After the Vietnam War, there was an international law to protect the environment during a war. It was a good idea but it isn’t working. After the Gulf War in 1991, NGOs asked governments for more protection. The Red Cross suggested new rules for the military. But countries and civil society were not interested in fighting for real progress.

So we went back to watching.

But since the 1990s, UNEP and others have looked at and recorded the environmental effects of wars. New technology is making it easier. And now we can make changes more easily than in the past.

But will we do anything? War is never ‘green’. But can we work to make its effects less? Can we find ways to help people and the environment? And how can we find ways to stop the negative effects of the military? These questions need work from the countries that have suffered or are at risk from environmental problems. They need work from the communities that have effects of war on their environments. It will need action from leaders in governments and from UN agencies, and most of all, it will need work from civil society.

The environment affects everyone and everything. And this is a good thing. For biodiversity or conservation NGOs, what happens before, during and after wars effects ecosystems. For human rights NGOs, war effects the human rights they want to protect. For humanitarian NGOs, environmental quality is important. For development NGOs, the effects of war on sustainable development are important to think about.

For all of this, governments, UN agencies, and civil society must work together.

We must do something. We cannot just watch.

Doug Weir is director of the Toxic Remnants of War Project, The project is on Twitter: @detoxconflict.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://www.newint.org/blog/2016/11/03/we-watch-war-destroying-the-environment-but-we-should-be-acting/

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).