Pekka Haavisto
describes how post-conflict environmental assessments are aiding recovery and promoting peace

What remains when the shooting stops? For the past six years UNEP has been developing a new tool – post-conflict environmental assessments – bringing a fresh component of aid to countries that have suffered the serious consequences of civil unrest, conflict and wars.

It has been working in countries where the natural and human environments have been damaged as a direct or indirect consequence of conflict. The assessments seek to identify immediate risks to human health and livelihoods and provide recommendations on priorities for clean-up, sustainable use of natural resources and strengthening environmental governance.

In 1999, as ruins in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro were still smoldering, UNEP teams conducted the first post-conflict environmental assessment in the Balkans. They concluded that there were several environmental hotspots – such as targeted industrial facilities and oil refineries in Pancevo, Novi Sad, Kragujevac and Bor – where immediate clean-up was needed to avoid further threats to human health. The Danube was at risk from the leakage of more than 60 different chemicals, including mercury, from Pancevo. These findings led the international community to include environmental clean-up in their post-conflict humanitarian aid for the first time.

After the Balkans, this new tool has been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Each situation is unique, due to the particular nature of the conflict, the society and the ecology. However, all post-conflict studies on the environment point to three general conclusions. First, a military conflict always has negative consequences for the environment, and these need to be addressed as soon as the situation on the ground allows. Second, environmental concerns are not stand-alone issues but need to be fully integrated into both short-term humanitarian work and long-term reconstruction and development. Third, post-conflict environmental work can build confidence and peace, bilaterally and regionally: where other topics are too sensitive to discuss, the environment can often serve as an icebreaker.

Environmental degradation
UNEP’s assessment in Afghanistan in 2002 identified pressures on natural resources, including water, soil, forests and wildlife, and linked poor environmental management of waste and water directly to risks to human health. It found most of the country subject to an alarming degree of environmental degradation exacerbated by poverty, population growth and years of drought. Over 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s people live in rural areas, where they have seen many of their basic resources – water for irrigation, trees for food and fuel – lost in just a generation. In urban areas clean water – the most basic necessity for human well-being – may reach as few as 12 per cent of the inhabitants.

Many of Afghanistan’s environmental problems can be traced back to the collapse of local and national forms of governance and resource management, highlighting the urgent need to rebuild its environmental administration. Re-vitalizing regional environmental cooperation to ensure proper management of water and natural resources is also essential.

In early 2003 UNEP published a study on Iraq, providing a timely overview of key environmental issues in the context of the recent conflict. It took into consideration the chronic environmental damage already resulting from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War, the unintended effects of UN sanctions and environmental mismanagement by the former Iraqi regime. Draining the Mesopotamian Marshes and building artificial waterways has ruined some of the country’s most valuable areas of biodiversity. Water pollution is affecting not only the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, but the wider Persian Gulf region.

The destruction of military and industrial infrastructure during Iraq’s various conflicts has released heavy metals and other hazardous substances into the air, soil and freshwater supplies. Smoke from oil-well fires and burning oil trenches, and looting and sabotage, have caused local air pollution and soil contamination. The lack of investment in the oil industry in recent years has reduced maintenance and raised the risk of leaks and spills.

Public concern
In Iraq – as in Kosovo, Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina – the use of depleted uranium ammunition during the conflicts has raised much public concern. International workers, including peacekeepers, are also concerned about its effects. UNEP has made several field studies on its use: recommendations include fencing and cleaning up contaminated sites.

A UNEP team visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories in late 2003, identifying acute environmental problems arising from the ongoing conflict and the long-term weakening of environmental governance. In times of conflict, few resources are available for developing environmental management or increasing public awareness about the environment. This leads to a general decline in environmental quality: landfills are not properly managed, groundwater is not protected from contamination and sewage flows directly into the Mediterranean. Its report concluded that, despite the current political difficulties, environmental problems should be addressed immediately in order to preserve natural resources and establish a safe environment for future generations.
New rules and regulations of conflict and warfare are needed to minimize the environmental and health risks
The work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has a component of environmental diplomacy and peacemaking. When there is a Palestinian state, it will have to cooperate on transboundary environmental issues with its neighbours – including Israel. Creating tools for Israeli-Palestinian environmental cooperation is a peacebuilding element for the whole region.

In Africa, UNEP has been working since 2003 on post-conflict issues in Liberia, where the misuse of natural resources has been both a source and sustainer of conflict. As timber was cut down to finance the war, logging roads were cut deeper into virgin forest. These facilitated illegal logging and opened up greater areas for illegal hunting. Several species are already under threat.

Severe consequences
Damage to the electricity production and distribution infrastructure has resulted in a massive increase in the use of charcoal. Forests – even mangrove forests in wetlands and costal zones – are under severe pressure, increasing coastal erosion. The massive movement of refugees and internally displaced people is another of the most severe consequences of the conflict. As in so many post-conflict countries, Liberia’s environmental administration has to start from scratch. Buildings have been looted and burned, files and books destroyed, civil servants added to the refugees.

Providing the Liberian Government and people with the capacity and proficiency to manage their natural resources in a just and sustainable way will make a key contribution toward increasing regional stability. The international community must now ensure that environmental issues are fully integrated into overall reconstruction efforts.

Post-conflict environmental assessment is a new tool in countries affected by war and its concomitants. Despite the uniqueness of the concept and the clear demand for its post-conflict work, neither UNEP – nor anyone else – should rest on its laurels and wait for the next conflict, and its environmental consequences, to arise. New rules and regulations of conflict and warfare are needed to minimize the environmental and health risks, for example by limiting possible targets and weapons. International interventions in conflict areas should also always include minimizing post-conflict environmental damage by protecting the population and initiating necessary clean-up and protection measures as soon as possible.

‘Green helmets’ – providing environmental protection during time of conflict and in post-conflict situations – are not utopian. They can be organized when the political will and technical capacities are in place

Pekka Haavisto is Chairman of the Afghanistan, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Depleted Uranium and Iraq projects, UNEP.

PHOTOGRAPH: Topham/Photri

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid

Complementary issues:
Pekka Haavisto: Bridging troubled waters (Freshwater) 2003
Pekka Haavisto: The legacy of conflict (Disasters) 2001