The scene looks apocalyptic from space — thick plumes of black and white smoke obscuring the landscape of northern Iraq near Mosul, the central battleground in the war against the Islamic State.
That white plume was captured by NASA satellites on October 22, shortly after ISIS militants set fire to a large sulfur plant in the area. The resulting sulfur-dioxide pollution, which can cause severe respiratory problems and irritate the eyes and throat, has killed two people and sent at least 1,000 others to hospitals. US forces in the region have donned gas masks and other protective gear in response.
The sulfur fire is part of a larger, disturbing pattern that’s been unfolding over the summer and fall: As a loose array of Iraqi troops, Kurdish forces, and Shiite paramilitaries push closer to Mosul, ISIS has been setting fire to oil fields and factories, filling the air with toxins, and contaminating key sources of drinking water.
Iraq has a long, sordid history of people using the environment as a weapon. In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s forces lit Kuwait’s oil fields on fire to cover their retreat after the first Gulf War. Hussein later drained the famed marshes of southern Iraq to punish the rebellious Marsh Arabs.
Now, more than 20 years later, officials say the Islamic State’s version of environmental warfare is making a fragile situation much, much worse. "This is sadly just the latest episode in what has been the wholesale destruction of Iraq's environment over several decades,” said Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Programme, in a statement. “This ongoing ecocide is a recipe for a prolonged disaster. It makes living conditions dangerous and miserable, if not impossible.”
How Iraq’s latest environmental catastrophe unfolded
The latest flare-up got going in June, when Iraqi forces advanced on Qayyarah, a small town south of Mosul near the Tigris River. ISIS set fire to at least 19 oil wells in nearby fields as they retreated, filling the air with black carbon and thick toxic fumes:
Then, on August 28, as Iraqi forces entered Qayyarah, ISIS reportedly opened up oil pipes in the town and flooded the streets with crude. UNICEF arrived the next day and found oil spilling into the Tigris River — the town’s main source of drinking water:
Atheer Al-Yaseen, an emergency specialist with UNICEF, described the scene in late August: “It was 48°C that day, and we could hardly breathe. Retreating armed groups had opened up oil pipes running through the town. The streets are flowing with oil and a lot of it is on fire, so the air is dark with smoke. All you can smell is smoke. Your lungs itch.”
Four months later, the oil fields are still burning:
That wasn’t the end of it. In October, as Iraqi forces pushed toward Mosul, ISIS fighters reportedly began filling trenches with crude oil and set them on fire to make it harder for American and Iraqi warplanes, drones, and attack helicopters to find and hit targets inside the city.
“Da'esh have lit oil fires sporadically as spoiler attacks when they retreat from areas, and sometimes in an attempt to obscure their movements,” said Col. John Dorian, a US military spokesman in Iraq. “It does effect some platforms temporarily.” (He added that the strategic impact was minimal: US and allied forces have battered ISIS targets throughout the Mosul region with more than 2,400 precision bombs, artillery rounds, missiles, and rockets since the campaign began on October 17.)
Satellite imagery captured thick black clouds of smoke from oil fires spreading over Mosul:
Then, on October 22, ISIS militants reportedly set fire to the Mishraq Sulfate Factory, about 19 miles south of Mosul. A white haze, thick with sulfur-dioxide emissions, soon began filling the sky:
Sulfur dioxide is a common pollutant around the world — it’s emitted whenever fuels containing sulfur like oil and coal are burned in cars or power plants. But this plant fire has been far worse, because the sulfate concentrations are much, much higher. The fumes can trigger respiratory problems and greatly irritate the upper airways. In sufficiently high quantities, exposure to sulfur dioxide can kill.
To put this in perspective: The same sulfur plant was set on fire by an arsonist back in 2003, and that conflagration lasted months, releasing some 21,000 tons of sulfur-dioxide per day. That’s four times as much as the largest man-made pollution source on Earth — a smelter in Noril’sk, Russia. It’s the sort of sulfur eruption usually only associated with volcanoes.
In late October, NASA measured extraordinarily high levels of sulfur-dioxide concentrations all around northern Iraq:
In addition to the two Iraqis killed and many hundreds more hospitalized, US troops have had to don the sort of protective gear last seen in 2003, when the Pentagon worried that Saddam Hussein might use chemical weapons. Dorian said that “some coalition forces experienced temporary irritation,” with soldiers ordered to wear gas masks, work indoors, or move to parts of their base where the air quality was better.
Finally, on October 23, the UN reports, a water treatment plant was damaged in fighting, “leading to a chlorine gas leak for which around 100 civilians sought medical treatment.”
It’s not clear that the worst is over yet. Wim Zwijnenburg, a Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader for the Dutch group PAX, has pinpointed a number of other industrial sites in the city of Mosul that could be vulnerable to further damage in battle or even deliberate sabotage. An attack on sewage sites, for instance, could lead to an outbreak of communicable diseases.
The devastation around the battle of Mosul doesn’t come in isolation. Since 2014, fighting near industrial sites throughout northern Iraq have led to the release of hazardous chemicals into nearby soil and groundwater. And last year, Iraq’s Minister of Environment Qutaiba al-Jubury accused ISIS of “deliberate contamination of rivers, lakes and streams with toxic waste and oil contaminants” as a tactic. In particular, he noted, the group has been polluting water supplies with oil and other chemicals and destroying farmland, leading to further desertification.
All this environmental damage has the potential to create even worse humanitarian crises down the road, warns Erik Solheim of UNEP. “It makes living conditions dangerous and miserable, if not impossible,” he said. “It will push countless people to join the unprecedented global refugee population.”
Iraq has a long history of people using the environment as a tool of war
For Iraq, the use of the environment as a weapon is unfortunately nothing new. Conflict and environmental degradation have been intertwined for decades.
Most famously, in 1991, Hussein’s army set nearly 600 oil fields in Kuwait ablaze as it retreated from US and coalition forces. The fires consumed more than 1 billion barrels of oil and released about 300 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that year — about 1.5 percent of the world’s entire annual emissions.
Iraqi forces also uncapped or damaged more than 130 wells and allowed crude oil to flow freely across the land, killing large numbers of livestock and other animals. The oil slick that poured into the Persian Gulf was the largest spill in history, fouling more than 439 miles of Saudi Arabian coastline.
In the end, it took an armada of international firefighting teams more than eight months to cap the last of the burning wells. They nicknamed the long, costly, and dangerous effort “Operation Desert Hell,” a sarcastic echo of “Operation Desert Storm,” the military’s name for the Gulf War.
And that paled beside what happened after the invasion of Kuwait. In the early 1990s, to punish the Marsh Arabs who rose up in rebellion during the Gulf War and flush out any remaining fighters, Saddam Hussein ordered the Mesopotamian marshes dammed and drained — turning the formerly lush wetlands that had sustained the region into bare land and salt crust.
In a 2003 report, the UN described what happened next: “The entire Marsh Arab community has suffered huge social and economic upheaval as a result of the marshlands’ destruction, with about 40,000 people forced to flee to southwest Iran and hundreds of thousands internally displaced within Iraq.”
Some Marsh Arabs have since returned to the wetlands, which was named a UNESCO world heritage site this past summer. The vibrant society that once existed there is probably gone forever, however — a vivid illustration of the toll exacted when the environment itself becomes weaponized.