Garbage on the shores of the Smaller Zab River in the Kurdistan Region. Photos: Hannah Lynch | Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – When ISIS threatened the Kurdistan Region in the summer of 2014, all armed forces were called to the front – including forest rangers. With woodland left unguarded, and a shortage of heating oil through the cold winter months, trees were felled and wildlife poached.
“Wars are always destructive, typically for the environment because it destroys the war zone and the remnants of the explosives used in the war can also harm the environment. Those forces who were assigned to protect the environment have been deployed to frontlines,” Samad Mohammed, former head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s environmental board, told Rudaw English.
“This allowed some of those people who are the enemies of their own environment to exploit the situation and begin preying on the birds and animals which are part of the beauty of the environment and are a national source of our country. Some other people began cutting down trees.”
November 6 has been appointed by the United Nations as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.
Sixty environmental groups worldwide, including several in Iraq, published a joint statement on Tuesday calling on governments to recognize that human security depends on environmental security.
“Today, our group of concerned civil society organizations, which includes academics, experts and scientists, are calling for the international community to enhance the protection of people and ecosystems by taking meaningful steps towards addressing the environment throughout the cycle of conflicts,” it said.
“This November 6, we urge governments to recognize and acknowledge that human security depends on environmental security, and that attaining both requires meaningful steps to address the environment throughout the cycle of conflicts.”
“States, international organizations, civil society, academia and affected communities all have a role to play in identifying and implementing innovative and practical solutions to enhance environmental security, and which protect civilians, their livelihoods and their futures. This is a task that has never been more urgent,” it added.
Iraq suffered immense environmental devastation during its war with Islamic State (ISIS). Some areas, particularly Mosul and other Sunni-dominated cities, have been reduced to toxic wastelands.
The problem has been compounded by the pollution of rivers, water scarcity in some quarters and flash flooding in others, leading to widespread protests. The mass death of the fish along the Euphrates River is only the latest example of the environment’s decline.
Although the Kurdistan Region has not suffered to the same extent, the neglect of its green spaces and forest land over recent years have taken their toll.
Pollution, garbage, water wastage, illegal oil refineries, heating oil shortages, and an overabundance of vehicles on the roads and private generators in communities have all damaged the ecosystem, former environment board official Mohammed said.
He recommended the KRG “take serious steps to find a solution for the garbage issue, provide heating oil and other sources of fuel to people to preserve our forests, prevent the abuse of birds and animals, shut the illegal refineries, move factories out of the cities, develop public transportation, and promote [better quality] vehicle fuel.”
Hazhar Mahir, head of the Waar organization for environment protection, told Rudaw English his group has called on the KRG’s Ministry of Peshmerga to return rangers to mountainous areas to preserve the nature of the Kurdistan Region.
According to Mahir, 37 percent of urban areas should be reserved for green space, based on international standards. However, none of the Kurdistan Region’s cities have achieved this. Duhok is the closest at around 25 percent.
The KRG has to focus on environmental education in schools and prosecute those abusing on the Region’s nature, Mahir recommended, adding that clerics and school teachers can play a significant role in raising awareness.