Conflict in Iraq has left a toxic trail of destruction, which could have severe health consequences for communities and reconstruction efforts, a new report said on Tuesday.
Iraqi are pleading for rapid remediation efforts to clean up the oil pollution and support for health monitoring.
Months of burning oil wells resulted in a blackened landscape, while in other places, large oil spills polluted agricultural lands and rivers, said report "Living under a black sky" by PAX.
The report also identified a sharp increase of hazardous artisanal oil refining, with more than 1,600 small refineries at 20 locations in northern Iraq.
Part of the research included a survey among Iraqi civilians living in Qayyarah, an oil town near Mosul where oil wells were deliberately set on fire by retreating Islamic State fighters. Some of the wells burned for more than eight months.
The report was released at the UN Environment Assembly here, where states are discussion a new resolution on conflict pollution prevention in areas affected by armed conflict.
PAX, as part of the Toxic Remnants of War Network, are contributing to the discussions at the three-day assembly that will conclude on Wednesday.
Local people expressed severe concerns over their health and well-being after living under the noxious clouds that affected their living environment, soil, water sources and livestock.
"Our findings demonstrate the need to provide sustained support to communities affected by toxic remnants of war, and take these concerns seriously," said PAX Project Leader and author Wim Zwijnenburg as per an official statement.
"Environmental health risks tend to be underestimated and overlooked in humanitarian work and reconstruction, yet have the potential to create acute and chronic health risks to civilians."
For the last three years, PAX has monitored the ongoing fighting in Iraq using open-source methods, and local partners in Iraq, UN institutions and humanitarian organisations, to collect data on potential environmental hotspots.
The findings of the report demonstrate the wide-ranging toxic consequences of conflict for the environment and health of civilians, which also hinder reconstruction efforts.
Widespread damage to urban areas, including Mosul, generated millions of tons of rubble often mixed with hazardous materials, while targeted critical infrastructure such as power plants and sewage systems can have detrimental environmental health risks.
Attacks by the Islamic State on oil facilities around Kirkuk and Baiji also resulted in many oil spills in the Tigris river, and flowed over large swathes of agricultural lands.
Local farmers expressed concerns over the environmental disaster that affected their livelihood.
PAX calls for increased data collection, sharing and monitoring to improve humanitarian response towards these toxic remnants of war.
"The environment is often the silent victim in any conflict, but we know that long-term recovery and peace building is also dependent on taking clear action on repairing environmental damage," UN Environment head Erik Solheim said.
Toxic Remnants of War Network Coordinator Doug Weir, who is present at the assembly negotiations, said the conflict in Iraq, and other regional conflicts, have shown that serious conflict pollution can be caused by non-state actors, as well as by states.
The UN Environment Assembly should be an opportunity for the international community to bring forward clear commitments to address the toxic remnants of war, he added.
(Vishal Gulati is in Nairobi at the invitation of United Nations Environment to cover its third annual session. He can be contacted at email@example.com)