On May 25, the Environmental Change and Security Project and the Conflict Prevention Project hosted Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the United Nations Environmental Programme's (UNEP) Post-Conflict Assessment Unit and Finland's former minister for the environment and development cooperation.
Haavisto spoke about the history and role of post-conflict environmental assessments in war-torn Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia. Environmental damage sustained during conflict--from "scorched earth" warfare to chronic pollution--poses serious health threats to the population and prevents nations from recovering. Despite the enormous risks, environmental concerns do not often rise to the top of governments' agendas as they recover from conflicts and negotiate peace. The UNEP Post-Conflict Assessment Unit prioritizes environmental concerns and assesses the health and security threats for governments emerging from conflict.
"The environment is not just butterflies and birds, it's real things people live with: it's water, agricultural land, and forests," said Haavisto, pointing out that the environment is a vital and highly contended resource that can be the basis for regional conflict, as well as a tool for diplomacy and peace building. Haavisto argued that by gathering and sharing information on war's environmental and health threats, UNEP could show "how to prevent the damage and how to protect the people during conflict."
Regions recovering from conflicts usually confront myriad environmental concerns, including hazardous waste, radioactive materials, contaminated water supplies, overpopulated refugee camps, chemical fires, and deforestation. UNEP is often "starting from scraps in this post-conflict situation," said Haavisto; new governments may not have an environmental ministry and or be aware of their country's protected areas. The political climate is rarely favorable; solutions often require cooperation between nations and delicate political maneuvering. However, UNEP has been relatively successful in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; according to Haavisto, "the interesting thing is that we got both Palestinians and Israelis to come to an agreement. It took quite a long time and quite a lot of diplomacy."
Reconstruction in Iraq
UNEP worked in Iraq from 1991 until last summer when it was forced to withdraw. They found chronic environmental problems, along with untreated damage from the Iraq-Iran conflict and the Gulf War. Recently, fires at looted factories and refineries pose the greatest threat. "When we went there before, there was still smoke coming out from many factories, and you start to think, ‘well the war ended three or four months ago and this is still ongoing!' So it was a surprisingly bad thing for the country." At one refinery, 5,000 tons of chemicals were set on fire. Haavisto showed the audience pictures of yellow radioactive waste barrels that locals stole and emptied to use to hold drinking water. Remarkably, "it is very hard to get the barrels back, people don't realize the risk."
UNEP has catalyzed negotiations between Iraq and Iran over the issue of regional water management. A May meeting of delegates from Iran and Iraq marked the first time in 29 years that both countries discussed managing natural resources on their common border. Haavisto reported that both Iran and Iraq agreed that it was a "meeting that they are happy to give information about, so they are not hiding the results. They think this is a very good start in the process" of rebuilding cooperation and trust between the two nations.
Haavisto hopes that UNEP will return to Iraq to focus on building capacity, initiating information exchange, creating databases, and monitoring environmental hazards by satellite. Most importantly, UNEP plans to catalyze international and regional cooperation in and around Iraq during the reconstruction period. Currently UNEP is monitoring the situation and planning field missions so they can reenter as soon as they get the clearance to return.
Radioactive Waste in the Balkans
UNEP's Post-Conflict Assessment Unit began working in the Balkans in 1999. Despite rumors about depleted uranium waste in the region, Haavisto said they did not get "the proper information on where it had been used and if it had been used." After the UN was accused of ignoring the issue, UNEP studied some of the reportedly contaminated sites, working closely with national military groups due to the threat of land mines.
According to Haavisto, although depleted uranium was not widespread, it was a serious risk in certain areas. Depleted uranium is much less radioactive than uranium, but it can contaminate wells and endanger people in contact with it. UNEP found that people did not understand the danger of radioactive materials; some residents were using uranium as body ornaments or home decor. The assessment unit reported low levels of air and water contamination in specific areas, but a properly conducted and timely cleanup could eliminate the threat.
Cooperation in Occupied Palestine
UNEP's Post-Conflict Assessment Unit has been involved in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 2001, attempting to evaluate the environmental consequences of the region's occupation and conflict. Haavisto explained that this project was unique because UNEP had the support of both Palestinian and Israeli officials. Environmental problems are centered in Gaza City, including untreated waste, sewage water, and agricultural chemicals washing into the water supply.
Haavisto explained that UNEP was trying to shift the terms of debate and negotiation away from water quantity and towards water quality. He recounted one of UNEP's main messages to Palestinian officials: "You are always fighting about the groundwater in terms of the quantity, but you never mention the quality. But you are, with your own activities, endangering the quality of the groundwater. So what is the use of fighting over the liters of water if you cannot guarantee that it can be used in the future?"
Although getting both sides to agree to involve a United Nations organization was difficult, UNEP has successfully carried out its mission and facilitated cooperation between both parties. Haavisto said that UNEP was trying to maintain its autonomy by "keeping this separate from the official roadmap." Therefore, if the official plan breaks down or fails, environmental issues are less likely to get lost in the shuffle.
UNEP helped Israel and Palestine reach an agreement on future environmental cooperation and is trying to reestablish the Joint Environmental Expert Committee to coordinate environmentally sustainable development in the region. In the future, UNEP will focus on capacity building for Palestinian officials, strengthening environmental authorities, and raising awareness.
Haavisto said that despite some major successes, it has faced an uphill battle "to convince different stakeholders that the environment is an important issue that needs to be dealt with immediately." Particularly in post-conflict situations, governments find it difficult to view the environment as a priority. But UNEP found success stressing the health aspects of environmental threats, and informing leaders of the benefits of addressing environmental issues. Donor interest, funding, and support have been strong incentives for governments to undertake conservation and clean-up activities.
Post-conflict regions can be difficult and messy places, but the UNEP assessment team is attempting to make environmental concerns more than a peacetime issue. The environment is strategically important; after a conflict it can hinder recovery and development, or provide an arena of negotiation and cooperation. As Haavisto pointed out, "the post-conflict situation is a unique opportunity to create something new."
Drafted by Amy Brisson.
- First European Union Special Representative for Sudan