A rapid overview of Environmental and Health Risks Related to Chemical Hazards in the Mosul Humanitarian Response

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Executive Summary

This report provides a rapid, not fully exhaustive, overview of the chemical hazards related to ongoing military operations that aim to retake the city of Mosul in Iraq from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The report is primarily targeted at humanitarian responders and clusters on the ground for consideration and advice in operational decision-making. The analysis focuses on events involving the release of chemical substances, most notably the burning of oil wells and the fire at the Al-Mishraq Sulphur mining and processing complex. The report provides an overview of the major expected short- and long-term environmental and health impacts associated with the recent events and needs to be followed up with a more detailed assessment of implications on health, environment and livelihoods.

The duration of the oil well fires were analysed by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNITAR-UNOSAT) using fire detection data made available by the NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System. The analysis shows that an initial fire at one or two wells occurred on 8 May 2016, lasting less than one day. Subsequently, on several dates in June small-scale fires burned for durations of less than one day. The current fire complex began on 3 July with daily fire detections occurring until about 12 July. Starting from this date, the number of fire detections increased, and have since then stayed consistently high. Satellite images show that the area around the Al-Qayyarah oil fields has been exposed to oil smoke plumes for around 90 days. Images by the NASA Earth Observatory show the sulphur plume spreading across northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey, where acidic precipitation were reportedly expected over 28-29 October according to meteorological forecasts carried out by the State Meteorological Agency of Turkey.

The burning oil wells, the Al-Mishraq facility fire and other conflict related hazards are impacting the health of the affected population in the short term – where hundreds of people were treated for exposure to chemicals, and millions are exposed to soot and gases from the burning oil wells.

The events are occurring in an already environmentally degraded region, threatened by substantial environmental legacy risk from previous conflicts, coupled with serious desertification and land degradation primarily caused by unsustainable agricultural practices. Nonetheless, the events are expected to cause environmental damage, especially in the short-term and around the most impacted areas of Al-Qayyarah and Al-Mishraq. Acidic gases and precipitation may damage vegetation and increase the acidity of watercourses. Agriculture may be temporarily affected, where the impacts will depend on the soil buffering capacity. A similar fire occurred at the Al-Mishraq facility in 2003 when piles containing sulphur were burning for a month. A subsequent environmental study conducted by the UN Environment Programme concluded that even though the vegetation and crops had been badly damaged by the fire, natural recovery was advancing well two years later. In terms of possible impacts on well water, it should be noted that the nearby wells were found already in 2005 to be unusable due to high sulphate and mineral content.

The burning of oil wells may have a long-lasting effect on the environment, where more detailed studies should be undertaken to compare the extent of burning and contamination occurred now to that of the Kuwaiti oil fires in 1991. Long-term environmental impacts will depend on the amount of oil spilled. In case large amounts has been spilt and/or deposited as lakes or ponds, possible effects on groundwater may occur. Damages to pipelines have not been reported.

The burning oil wells and possible other chemical spills/fires require close monitoring as they evolve, and regular health risk assessment for local areas, as well as in areas where the contamination has spread, in particular by the wind. A health registry of exposed population should be created to monitor and identify long-term health impacts of air pollution. To the extent possible, collection of quantitative data on air pollution should be carried out now by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and Environment including from existing air monitoring stations. Neighbouring countries should also initiate similar monitoring activities.

Environmental impacts will need to be thoroughly assessed as soon as the situation allows. This can be carried out as part of a multi-lateral Post-Conflict Needs Assessment (PCNAs) undertaken by the UN Development Group, the World Bank and the European Commission in collaboration with the Government of Iraq. Alternatively, a standalone Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment (PCEA) may be carried out by the Government of Iraq in collaboration with relevant international partners.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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