Mosul battle poses health risks

By Maya Gebeily — The battle to retake Mosul from the IS is leaving a legacy of environmental damage and health risks that will pose dangers to people for years to come. Iraqis have already paid the initial price from burning oil wells and a sulphur factory that IS set alight south of Mosul, Iraq’s last extremist-held city which is the target of a major military operation. The fires, combined with water pollution and the potentially toxic remains of destroyed buildings, military equipment and munitions, will present longer-term threats to people in areas around and inside Mosul.
“We are concerned about how the pollution will affect the health of local populations and negatively impact their capacity to rebuild quality, sustainable livelihoods within those affected areas,” said Jenny Sparks of the International Organization for Migration.
A United Nations report on environmental and health risks in the Mosul area said that “hundreds of people were treated for exposure to chemicals, and millions are exposed to soot and gases from the burning oil wells”.
IS set fire to oil wells before the Qayyarah area was recaptured by Iraqi forces in August, and these have burned for months, turning sheep that graze in the area black with soot.
“We can’t sell our sheep any more. We have had some sheep die, other times people won’t buy them because they look black,” said Jaber, a 16-year-old shepherd.
IS also set fire to the Mishraq sulphur plant south of Mosul. The blaze was eventually put out, but it has blanketed nearby areas with a haze of smoke that has caused respiratory problems for those inhaling it.
Houses and other buildings damaged or destroyed by air strikes and shelling also pose a risk to civilians trying to return to their homes.
“Crushed building materials contain harmful substances, pulverised cement, household wastes and chemicals which can cause exposure hazards to civilians and people dealing with the rubble,” the report said.
The destruction of ammunition and weapons depots can also “leave a toxic footprint”, while “destroyed military material such as tanks and armoured vehicles often contains various toxic materials”, it said.
Water pollution associated with the conflict is another potential problem, according to Eric Solheim, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme.
Inadequate disposal of waste also poses risks, the UN said. —AFP