Technical Note - Environmental Issues in Areas Retaken from ISIL: Mosul, Iraq Rapid Scoping Mission, July - August 2017

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Summary Highlights


  • Iraq has experienced widespread destruction of civil and industrial infrastructure from systematic and extensive sabotage and looting by ISIL (so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, alias Daesh), as well as from airstrikes and military operations to recapture these areas.
  • Destruction of major investments in new infrastructure made prior to the fall of northern and western Iraq to ISIL constitute a substantial economic and development setback.
  • Meanwhile, there has been widespread looting - from oil resources to archaeological artefacts - by mafia-like organized crime during the period under ISIL control.
  • It will take time to fully comprehend the level of environmental damage given the lack of institutional memory over what occurred during the three years of ISIL occupation. New contaminated sites are likely to be reported as inaccessible areas open up.

Mosul Debris

  • The quantity of conflict debris in Mosul is estimated at 11 million tonnes. Equivalent to three times the Great Pyramid of Giza or four times the Eiffel Tower.
  • UN Environment is working with Mosul Municipality, UN-Habitat and technical partners to refine debris quantification estimates and develop operational management scenarios for recovering and recycling the enormous quantity of rubble.
  • In collaboration with partners, UN Environment plans to organize a workshop with Mosul Municipality to help develop an optimal debris management plan in late 2017.

Contaminated Sites

  • Burning for 9 months, the 18 oil wells set alight by ISIL in Qarrayah created such thick black smoke that locals refer to the darkened skies as the ‘Daesh winter’.
  • Al-Shuhadaa neighbourhood was devastated by the blasting of an oil well lying in its midst. The interior of many homes is covered in toxic soot and residents complain that noxious fumes from the oil pools and smouldering fires have made the settlement uninhabitable.
  • ISIL set alight a ~50,000 tonne stockpile of pure sulphur at the Mishraq Complex, creating a dense white cloud of toxic sulphur oxides that reached Baghdad and neighbouring countries.
  • An approximately two million tonne pile of sulphur waste is at risk of future sabotage attempts or accidents in the inadequately guarded site.
  • A wide range of sites from factories, workshops and warehouses to private homes and schools were converted by ISIL into ammunition manufacturing plants and are now littered with explosives and potentially toxic chemical products.
  • There is a high risk of toxic PCB contamination from the extensive damage to Mosul’s electricity network. At the main electricity station supplying western Mosul, heavy calibre rounds were deliberately fired by ISIL into a block of power transformers filling the basement of the building below with up to 3 metres of transformer oil.
  • Artisanal oil refining on the outskirts of both eastern and western Mosul is another important legacy of the conflict. Makeshift refineries use rudimentary practices creating a localized but a potentially significant pollution footprint.
  • Mosul airport, Ghizlani military camp and Western Mosul’s central garages reportedly contain large amounts of hazardous asbestos.
  • Adaya and Al-Jazira, are two high risk sites from Iraq’s former nuclear decommissioning programme whose status remains unknown.

Cessation of Environmental Governance and Education

  • Niniveh Environment Directorate was immediately disbanded by ISIL and its offices, laboratories and assets confiscated. Ordered not to return to work, its 140 staff were jobless for three years.
  • Converted by ISIL into one of their command centres and suspected to have been used as an ammunition making workshop, the Environment Directorate’s offices were set on fire by ISIL and are no longer useable.
  • Mosul University’s College of Environmental Sciences and Technology was abolished and its brand new building transformed into a command centre for ISIL leadership. The college was thoroughly ransacked and the building structurally sabotaged by ISIL prior to their eviction in January 2017.

Weaponization of water management infrastructure

  • ISIL seized control of critical dams and barrages to exert hydrologic hegemony over downstream cities and rural areas by either cutting off water supplies or releasing a flood wave to drown government controlled areas. The 2014-2015 ‘drought’ in central and southern Iraq was largely a result of ISIL blocking water flows.
  • ISIL also used water facilities as a battlefield weapon to flood and impede government troop movements or to create defensive positions. A prime example was the flooding in 2014 of hundreds of square kilometres of agricultural land downstream of Fallujah which displaced thousands of people, reaching Abu Ghraib near Baghdad.
  • Iraq’s water battle was mainly played out on the Euphrates River where ISIL’s command extended into Syria. At one point, ISIL controlled all of the water infrastructure along the Euphrates River from Tabaqa dam in Syria to Fallujah Barrage near Baghdad. Only Haditha, Iraq’s second largest dam, remained under government control through airlift support.
  • An initial assessment by the Ministry of Water Resources estimates direct damages to hydraulic infrastructure at USD 600 million dollars. Although water installations have now returned under government control they need urgent rehabilitation and maintenance.