The world’s war zones often look like apocalyptic scenes, with shattered mounds of toxic rubble stretching for kilometers in what were once cosmopolitan Mediterranean destinations, or thriving and culturally important cities.
The cost of the damage is astonishing in terms of lives lost and families destroyed, decimated economies and displaced populations – but the landscape that’s left behind in places like Libya or Syria, Somalia or Yemen, is also an environmental crisis. In Mosul, a city that was home to 1.4 million in Iraq, an estimated eight million tons of conflict debris was left behind when waves of fighting with Islamic State ended in 2017, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Most of it was piled up along the banks of the Tigris River.
What were once homes and businesses, universities and museums, roads and bridges and dams, are reduced to piles of carbon-intensive concrete and stone during the fighting. The massive piles are loaded with hazardous materials like asbestos, while landmines and other remnants of the war years remain dangerously concealed within, often for decades as the reconstructed cities of Europe well know.
There are oil spills and chemical releases from industrial sites. There are heavy metals released from building materials. There is medical waste buried under what were once hospitals or clinics, and there are bodies still entombed within the mountains of debris.
Wars end, but no one can go home to rebuild until the rubble is cleared and environmental risk is reduced. That’s why UNEP, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other partners are working on solutions in Iraq that may work elsewhere too. Engineer Salah Thameel of Anbar University says most of the debris in the city of Ramadi, for example, is suitable for road building and other projects if it were recycled. It’s also cheaper than new construction material and reduces the related carbon impacts, and about two-thirds of the debris found in the Kirkuk region alone can be reused.
“Crushing the rubble is a pragmatic and straightforward answer, offering a ray of hope in dealing with our massive challenges, including creating jobs for displaced youth,” says Hassan Nassif, the head of a Multaqa sub-district where 35 villages were destroyed during the conflict.
Thousands of people remain displaced and there is much work to do, but new guidelines for Iraq, released this month by UNEP, establish best practices for removing and recycling the debris. The guidance focuses on reducing hazards caused by the work itself, such as the particulate matter concentrations in dust released by crushing the materials or from transporting it on roads to and from the recycling sites.
The projects in Iraq, beginning with the pilot program in Mosul and now expanding, cannot restore the past but can pave the way – in some cases literally – for a sustainable future.
“The volume of physical destruction in areas that saw some of the fiercest fighting is daunting,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN special representative for Iraq. “This project to recycle the debris of that conflict into building materials for reconstruction will be nothing short of life-changing for those involved. It will enable them to relaunch their communities.”