Newsbrief, TerraViva United Nations

Environment: a Silent Victim of the Syrian Conflict

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 18 2015 (IPS) - The devastating five-year-old civil war in Syria has contributed to the largest refugee crisis since World War II. But there is also another silent victim of the Syrian conflict: the degradation of the environment.

A new report launched by Dutch non-profit PAX has revealed the severe short and long-term environmental and public health consequences from the four-and-a-half year Syrian civil war.

“Pollution incidents from previous conflicts and the pattern of fighting and insecurity in Syria indicate that environmental threats may be widespread,” said author Wim Zwijnenburg in the report.

Using available data from satellite imagery, social media and UN reports, he identified mass environmental destruction caused to densely populated areas, industries, and critical infrastructure, resulting in potential threats to public health.

For instance, as of December 2014, 1.3 million houses, or one-third of all residential sites, have been destroyed in the country. Such damage has not only displaced millions of civilians, but it has also released harmful substances from building rubble including metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and asbestos.

These toxins, which are also released from weapon use, can potentially cause public health to deteriorate, Zwijnenburg told IPS, as he referred to the health consequences of rubble exposure following New York’s World Trade Center attacks in September 2001.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 1100 people who worked or lived near the World Trade Center during 9/11 were diagnosed with cancer.

The report, titled “Amidst the Debris,” also highlighted damage to critical infrastructure such as oil refineries and installations which generate significant air pollution and contaminate soil and water, producing further long-term negative health consequences.

As of September 2015, air strikes by a US-led coalition have damaged 196 oil installations in the country. Additional oil refineries have also repeatedly come under attack by armed forces.

The fighting has caused a complete collapse in waste management services, the report also noted. This accumulation of waste can lead to serious air, soil, and water contamination as well as health hazards such as respiratory diseases and cancer.

This poses a challenge not only for civilians still living in Syria, but also for those who wish to return.

However, the long-term impact of military activities on the environment and the consequences they may have on the public remains largely neglected and unaddressed, the report stated.

“In peacetime circumstances, there is a strong environmental governance that regulates our society and prevents us from being exposed to hazardous materials,” Zwijnenburg told IPS.

“Yet in wartime, these systems collapse or those rules are thrown overboard as they don’t serve the military utility,” he continued.

The collapse of environmental governance is not limited to the Syrian war. From the burning of oil fields in Kuwait and Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War to the damaged industries and mining sites during Ukraine’s ongoing conflict, militarized conflicts have taken a heavy toll on the environment and public health.

For instance, after three decades of war, Syria’s neighbor Iraq has become one of the world’s most contaminated countries.

It continues to see high levels of radiation and other toxic substances from depleted uranium used during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion which have led to a rise in birth defects and cancer.

Statistics from the Iraqi government show that, prior to the first Gulf War, cancer rates in the country were approximately 40 out of 100,000 people. By 2005, it had doubled to at least 1,600 out of 100,000 people and is estimated to continue increasing.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has highlighted these dangerous long-term effects of conflict on the environment and health.

“The effects from damage done to the environment and natural resources during times of war and armed conflict continue far beyond the period of conflict itself,” UNEP said in a statement marking the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

“Armed conflict has the potential to reverse years of development and destroy livelihoods,” UNEP continued.

Though UNEP has been conducting post-conflict environmental assessments to help local governments address such challenges, Environmental Affairs Officer at UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, Hassan Partow, noted the obstacle of funding.

He stated that there is no dedicated fund to cover the assessments. “[Financing] has to be raised for each conflict…from an interested donor to be implemented,” Partow told IPS.

Following over a decade of war in Liberia, UNEP was unable to mobilize financial resources to help rebuild national capacity for resource management and environmental governance. Only 37.5 percent of the programme was financed, forcing UNEP to withdraw from the country.

Similarly, UNEP’s program in Lebanon to address waste excess after the short but devastating 2006 conflict with Israel was only able to garner 40 percent of required funding.

The PAX report called on all parties, in Syria and beyond, to consider environmental threats and to strengthen the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict. It also emphasized the need for increased collection and sharing of environmental data to map contamination hot spots and mitigate health risks.

“One day, the hostilities in Syria will end. But from a citizens’ perspective, recovery..will also need determined action to responsibly and adequately deal with the environmental hazards the conflict has created,” Zwijnenburg said.


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