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October 13, 2021

Iraq bomb contamination: catastrophic, six times as costly to remove, and a serious barrier to recovery

Silver Spring, MD – More than four years after hostilities ended in Iraq, communities are still as fractured as the buildings­, roads, and bridges around them. “No safe recovery: The impact of Explosive Ordnance contamination on affected populations in Iraq,” paints a harrowing picture of the daily lives of Iraqis, some of whom are too nervous to let their children walk to schools, or so desperate for income that they’ll risk working in places known to be polluted with explosives. 

Released by Humanity & Inclusion, the report lends critical evidence to generations of cases proving war cannot end for civilians until the last bomb is cleared. It underscores the need for States to reach a consensus on a way to safeguard civilians when conflicts strike populated areas. Researchers focused on Iraq’s heavily populated governorate of Ninewa, home to the cities of Mosul, Sinjar, and Tel Afar.

For explosive ordnance, Iraq is one of the most heavily contaminated countries on our planet. Explosive remnants of war pocket more than 3,200 km2 of land—twice the area of London. The pollution infuses the population with terror, as mines or explosive remnants claimed about 700 victims in the two years from 2018-2020. A staggering 8.5 million Iraqis live amid these deadly, waste-products of war. 

“Gone are the neat rows of minefields,” says Humanity & Inclusion’s Advocacy Protection of Civilians Manager, Alma Al Osta. “We’re often talking about bombs triggered by tripwires in hallways, aerial bombs that never exploded resting meters below ground and surrounded by rubble, and children’s toys packed with explosives.”

Clearing what deminers call “three-dimensional” pollution requires the top-level of explosive ordnance training—a classification that too few deminers hold in Iraq. Even the classic deminer’s blue protective suit is almost useless amid this contamination. One mine actor interviewed for the report in Mosul noted, “we would find more items as we dug. This makes clearance difficult, as it is not just surface layer, it is deep underneath.”

Demining bombed-out cities costs six times as must as it does to clear a rural setting. The job is often done with a mix of heavy machinery, and the constant risk to deminers and neighbors that controlled explosions will trigger collapse. In cities, this critical work takes eight times longer to complete compared to rural settings.

Funding is a serious barrier. Iraq requires $170-180 million USD per year, including $50 million for Mosul, to remove its explosive ordnance.

Bombing cities: Inhumane, imprecise, expensive

Bombing populated areas was a hallmark of the conflict that Iraqis endured from 2014-2017.  This practice not only robbed tens of thousands of Iraqis of their lives, but also left their schools, fields, pathways, homes, water treatment plants, and shops littered with explosive ordnance.

“Bombs and cities should never meet,” says Al Osta. “Not only does the moment of impact cause maximum destruction to the buildings, institutions, and people within the blast radius, the explosive pollution left behind robs a population’s right to any chance at restoring its economic and social heartbeat.”

Indeed, the report is stacked with income-stopping data from the conflict, culled from regional reports:

  • $7 billion damage to the electricity sector
  • $2.8 billion damage to roads, airports, bridges, and railways
  • $2.1 billion worth of damage to agriculture, including an estimated three-quarters of all cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo lost
  • $600 million damage to water infrastructure
  • In Mosul alone, 9 out of 13 hospitals damaged, along with 169 schools damaged or destroyed

“Current rules of war fail civilians in populated areas during conflict, and as we see from Iraq, years after the fighting ends, too,” says Al Osta. “What evidence do States need to back a strong political declaration to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effect in populated areas?”

After two years of diplomatic discussions, Humanity & Inclusion expects such a declaration to be signed by States soon. It will mark a historic breakthrough for the protection of civilians in conflict.

Social Cohesion

Ninewa’s diverse population is struggling to heal for a variety of factors. According to the report, relationships between and within different groups have been negatively impacted by a multitude of factors, some which date back decades. The role of explosive ordnance contamination in this

Explosive ordnance accidents have also shifted roles within families and communities.

“When we see a head of household injured in an accident, they may feel that they are no longer able to support their family, which has a negative impact on their psychological well-being,” says Humanity & Inclusion’s Country Director of Iraq Marc Van der Mullen. “If a family member experiences disability after an accident, they can be seen as a burden, especially as access to health services remains limited and expensive.” 

One in 12 internally displaced persons—and Iraq counted 678,512 internally displaced neighbors in 2020—reports that the presence of explosive ordnance is a barrier to their return, the report notes. Barred from safe return, households continue to be displaced and communities are unable to reconnect and build their resilience collectively. 

With schools and playgrounds contaminated, groups that might otherwise mix, cannot. As one woman explained in Sinjar, In my village, there is no high school. It is difficult for students to travel to other villages, especially when we do not know whether that village is contaminated or not.”

The report concludes, The scope of this contamination is clearly hampering the efforts of communities and humanitarian and development actors in the region towards recovery, peace and sustainable development. Women and persons with disabilities are likely to be more vulnerable to these reverberating effects of explosive ordnance contamination. In fact, indirect impacts of contamination on social cohesion, such as limited access to livelihoods and services, can cause tensions within families. “Women are particularly vulnerable in these situations, as tensions may translate into gender-based violence,” the report finds.

Notes:

  • To read the full report: https://hi.org/sn_uploads/document/Report2021_EO-Contamination-Iraq-EN-final.pdf
  • Report methodology: The report focuses on Ninewa Governorate, Iraq’s second most populated governorate. Researchers undertook a thorough desk review of secondary literature and conducted key informant interviews with relevant stakeholders and individuals from the affected population.
  • Humanity & Inclusion’s experts are available for interview upon request:
    • Marc Van der Mullen, Iraq Country Manager
    • Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, Disarmament and Protection of Civilians Advocacy Manager
    • Reem Fawaz, Database Agent
  • For more about Humanity & Inclusion’s activities in Iraq - https://www.hi-us.org/iraq
  • Photo copyright F. Vergnes/HI 2021

About Humanity & Inclusion 

Humanity & Inclusion is an independent international aid organization, working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster for close to 40 years. Working alongside people with disabilities and people living in situations of extreme vulnerability, our action and testimony focus on responding to their essential needs, improving their living conditions, and promoting respect for their dignity and basic rights. Humanity & Inclusion has set up development programs in more than 60 countries and intervenes in numerous emergency situations. The network of eight national associations (Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States) mobilizes resources, jointly manages projects, and increases the impact of the organization’s principles and actions. Humanity & Inclusion is one of six founding organizations of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. The organization has numerous prizes to its name, including the 2011 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the 1996 Nansen Prize, and two 2020 European Union Horizon Prizes for innovation. Humanity & Inclusion acts and campaigns in places where “living in dignity” is no easy task. 

Press contacts: Mica Bevington | [email protected] | +1 202-290-9264