Mosul, Iraq: Blackened skies stress importance of protecting the environment in times of conflict

Burning oil wells and industrial facilities adding toxic chemicals to the complexity of the Mosul humanitarian response

Military operations to retake Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have been ongoing since 17 October. They have been accompanied by large-scale displacement and threats to the safety and wellbeing of civilians caught in the conflict. Humanitarian responders are preparing and providing humanitarian assistance for up to one million vulnerable people. Adding to the complexity of the situation, environmental pollution from burning oil wells and industrial facilities poses risks to human health, the environment and livelihoods.

Satellite images, provided by UNOSAT and NASA Earth Observatory, show that the Al-Qayyarah area has been exposed to oil smoke plumes for around 90 days, while the sulphur plume caused by a fire at the Al-Mishraq mining and processing complex spread across northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey, where acidic precipitations were reported on 28-29 October.

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, courtesy of data by Aura OMI science team and MODIS data from LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response displaying extent of Sulphur plume in white and oil plume in black.


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At the request of OCHA Iraq, the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit (JEU) put responders on the ground in touch with hazardous materials experts, providing technical advice on the best way forward for dealing with the impacts of the burning oil wells and the fire at Al-Mishraq facility. The JEU, in cooperation with UNOSAT, WHO, UNEP, OCHA and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, has since then been providing remote advice to humanitarian responders on the possible environmental and health impacts of the recent events, and is working to mobilize the deployment of environmental experts to assess the impacts and provide mitigation possibilities locally.


This crisis highlights the fact that environmental destruction during armed conflict impacts people’s health, the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the prospects of post-war recovery and lasting peace, and can serve as a driver of migration from areas that are often already environmentally degraded by previous conflicts and unsustainable agricultural practices. Between 19-21 October, the Federal Ministry of Health and the Directorate of Health, supported by WHO, treated over 1,000 cases of respiratory symptoms within the affected areas.

Since 3 November, rainfalls and associated flooding in the affected areas are causing additional concern as pollutants are being washed out from polluted sites and – through the rain – are deposited on agricultural fields, into the Tigris River, villages, etc. The geography of the landscape, consisting of hills and valleys, as well as the onset of the rainy season aggravate the scale of this concern and necessary precautions will need to be taken to minimize the impacts of toxic pollutants on livelihoods in the short-, mid- and long-term.

View from Al Qayyarah. Oil wells burning in the background. Credit: OCHA/ Themba Linden

To increase the visibility of these inter-relations, the UN General Assembly declared 6 November of each year as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict (A/RES/56/4). Marking the day, Erik Solheim, UN Environment’s Executive Director and OCHA’s Stephen O’Brien jointly called for action to protect the environment in times of war.


“Families fleeing from Mosul have been impacted by years of living under ISIL and by the ongoing military operation, leaving them in urgent need of humanitarian aid and protection. Choking clouds and toxic fumes from burning oil wells and industrial facilities now add to their plight. Protecting the environment during conflicts is critical to protecting human health and also the ability of communities and nations to recover after crises.”

                                                         Stephen O’Brien, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.


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