Conflicts are bad for the environment, says UNEP report

At a time when the threat of war looms large over Iraq, here's more ammunition for peaceniks to confront warmongers with. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently released the findings of assessments conducted in the violence-wracked Occupied Palestinian Territories and Afghanistan

 
By Clifford Polycarp
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

At a time when the threat of war looms large over Iraq, here's more ammunition for peaceniks to confront warmongers with. The United Nations Environment Programme (unep) recently released the findings of assessments conducted in the violence-wracked Occupied Palestinian Territories and Afghanistan. The reports have brought into sharp focus the terrifying impact of conflicts on the environment and, subsequently, on human health. The ecological costs of the 1991 Gulf War also represent a similar trend (see box: The aftermath).

The issue of environmental assessments that take stock of the after-effects of war dominated the 22nd session of the unep Governing Council, held in Nairobi from February 3-7, 2003. Not only did members endorse steps taken by the unep in this regard, they called upon it to further strengthen its activities in this area through its Post-Conflict Assessment Unit (pcau) which was set up in December 2001. It was, however, decided after a heated debate that the unep should restrict its activities to post-conflict situations and that even these shall be carried out only upon the request of the concerned parties.

The two studies by the unep include the 'Afghanistan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, 2002', brought out in Kabul on January 29, and the 'Post-Conflict Desk Assessment in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, 2002', released at the Governing Council meet. Both record in detail the havoc wrought on the environment.
Occupied Palestinian Territories Following a decision by the 7th special session of the Governing Council held in February 2002, the unep undertook a desk study to outline the state of the environment in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and to identify the areas of major environmental damage requiring urgent attention. "The unanimous decision of the council was motivated by the alarming reports related to pollution of groundwater, dumping of wastes, loss of natural vegetation and contamination of coastal waters in the region," reveals Klaus Topfer, the executive director of unep.

The research was carried out by a team of experts chaired by Pekka Haavisto, the former Finnish minister of environment and development cooperation. In Gaza and the West Bank the Israeli occupation, policies of closure and curfew, and incursions of the Israeli military have been identified as factors that have caused several environmental problems. These range from degradation of water quality and unsustainable over-pumping of water from aquifers, to contamination of aquifers by wastewater, landfills and hazardous waste.

The study notes that war-related environmental problems are adding to existing pressures on the ecology. Instances such as population pressures coupled with scarcity of land, weak environmental infrastructure, inadequate resources for environmental management, and global environmental trends like desertification and climate change have been cited to substantiate this observation. It underscores the fact that the situation is steadily deteriorating in the absence of even the barest minimum cooperation between the Israeli government and Palestinian authority.

As many as 136 recommendations have been made to address the problems facing the region. Action has been suggested in the areas of transboundary and international cooperation, land-use planning, freshwater and wastewater management, solid and hazardous waste handling, and sustainable management of natural resources.

The Governing Council has asked the unep to implement its recommendations and act as an impartial moderator on urgent environmental problems when requested by both parties. How it is going to achieve its multi-point prescriptive agenda with the ongoing standoff in West Asia, is anyone's guess.
Afghanistan The case of Afghanistan is different from those of other conflict zones in that the most serious issue here is long-term environmental degradation caused by a complete collapse of both local and national forms of government.

In September 2002, a mission comprising scientists and experts from Afghanistan and other parts of the world visited several urban and rural locations to conduct the unep study (see: 'Ailing Afghanistan', February 28, 2003).

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