Environmental Legacy of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

Human Wrongs Watch

5 November 2021 (UNEP)* — November 6 marks the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Curtailing the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) is a humanitarian priority due to increasing civilian deaths and injuries from armed conflict in urban settings and indirect environmental impacts, which are now recognized as an important dimension of their use.


REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz / 05 Nov 2021

The environment is an inseparable part of the well-being, health and survival of civilians. EWIPA cause harmful pollution and destruction, which constrains access to the environment civilians live in.

“Destruction of environment during conflicts not only affect public health directly in the immediate aftermath – through air and water pollution – but also affects long term recovery due to destruction of livelihood depending on environmental resources,” says Muralee Thummarukudy, Operations Manager of the UNEP Crisis Management Branch.

In 2019, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, issued a joint appeal on the use of explosive weapons in cities and other areas with population concentrations, calling for an end to the devastation and civilian suffering.

As the world urbanizes, so does armed conflict.  When cities are bombed and shelled — whether by airstrikes, rockets, artillery or improvised explosive devices — civilians overwhelmingly bear the brunt.  In fact, the majority of casualties — over 90 per cent, according to one estimate — are civilians. The harrowing images from population centres in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine — to name but a few — show a pattern of grave civilian harm impossible to ignore, yet too often forgotten.

In 2020, Action on Armed Violence recorded 18,747 deaths and injuries from the use of explosive weapons around the world. In total, 123 countries and territories saw at least one casualty from explosive violence. In populated areas, 91 per cent of those killed or injured were civilians, compared to 25 per cent in less populated areas.

Impacts of explosive weapons on the environment

Livestock graze amid rubble in a field.
Demolished villages in Kirkuk, Iraq face long-term environmental issues due to debris and pollutants Photo: UNEP, 2017

Environmental considerations of EWIPA are being examined within the framework of a political declaration, currently under negotiation by governments to address the need for better protection of civilians. A recent report by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research identifies the environment as one of the key indicators in documenting the harm of explosive weapons.

Adverse environmental impacts on human health include the generation of huge volumes of debris and waste, and the release of hazardous materials such as asbestos, industrial chemicals and fuels.

Additionally, damage to industrial facilities can result in chemical spills and land and water contamination, while damage to water supply and wastewater sanitation facilities or the collapse of solid waste infrastructure can result in pollution.

Grappling with mountains of debris

Cityscapes reduced to rubble are emblematic of the use of EWIPA, but their cleanup is one of the most overlooked in recovery efforts.

In Syria, one-third of the housing stock has been damaged or destroyed, according to World Bank assessments. An estimated 15 million tons of debris was generated in Aleppo and 5.3 million tons in Homs.

In Iraq, around 63 cities and 1,556 villages were reportedly destroyed during the ISIL conflict between 2014 and 2017. National estimates indicate that over 55 million tons of debris was generated from residential buildings. This figure does not account for debris from destroyed government buildings or public infrastructure.

The geographic spread of rubble from the use of EWIPA has huge implications on setting up complex logistic operations for debris recovery: transport, trucking, and finding suitable disposal sites. In Mosul, simply trucking the debris out of the city in the initial phases had a price tag of approximately US$100 million.

One of the biggest challenges of debris management is timing: street debris is usually cleared within the first 6 to 12 months, but this only typically represents 15–20 percent of total debris. The majority will be generated as demining operations advance and buildings are demolished, which typically spans several years and sometimes decades.

Furthermore, the presence of Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) in the debris is a significant challenge with important cost implications including ensuring personnel safety, conducting time-consuming technical surveys, and identifying proper disposal or recycling options.

This likely results in increased demand for quarrying materials, leading to greater depletion of natural resources and ecosystem degradation. ERW also have important implications on the ability of displaced people to return to their homes and rebuild, affecting stabilization efforts.

Pollution from industrial infrastructure

A large fire burns in a scorched landscape, with several people watching
Oil wells torched in Qayyarah generate air pollution and release hazardous chemicals, harming human health. Photo: Oxfam

Damage to industrial facilities often results in the release of toxic chemicals, causing air, water and soil pollution. According to a recent report from Action on Armed Violence, in Ukraine’s Donbas, 36 mines have now flooded and are likely to have released methane gases and toxic heavy metals into local ground water pools, which has the potential to pollute key water supplies.

Oil facilities are frequently targeted and sabotaged during conflicts, which has lasting ramifications for local populations and habitats. A 2019 survey conducted by the Iraq Ministry of Environment with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) support identified 74 oil-polluted sites from the conflict, of which four clusters are considered of particularly high concern both in terms of scale and severity.

The thick clouds of black smoke that blanketed Qayyarah for months – a small town of 25,000 people located 60 kilometers south of Mosul – is emblematic of the ravages of the ISIL conflict.

Impacts on health

Damage to wastewater and drinking water supply systems leads to contamination and poses serious environmental health impacts. In Ukraine, the shelling of run-down water facilities and networks – located in the vicinity of the ‘contact line’ between government-controlled territories and non-government-controlled territories – puts at risk the water supply of more than 3.9 million people and jeopardizes the treatment of wastewater in sewage treatment plants, which may lead to contamination of water resources.

As a result, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 750,000 children in eastern Ukraine are at risk of contracting water-borne diseases like diarrhoea.

In 2017, more than half of Libya’s schools did not have access to quality drinking water or sanitation facilities, according to UNICEF. The backbone of the country’ water infrastructure – the Great Man-Made River – has suffered significantly from militant attacks and sabotage.

Next steps

The latest version of a draft political declaration to protect citizens from EWIPA incorporates the issue of environmental ramifications, such as the contamination of air, soil, groundwater and other resources. Future declarations must include these environmental impacts as core components, according to Thummarukudy.

“It is important that environmental impacts of explosive weapons are properly acknowledged in the EWIPA Declaration, and not just mentioned as secondary externalities and collateral damages,” he says.


2021 Human Wrongs Watch

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