Violence and wildfires driving people from their lands in Iraqi Kurdistan

November 13, 2020

Between May and September 2020 nearly 300.000 acres of land were burned during military campaigns taking place in Iraqi Kurdistan. Shelling and bombing resulted in bushfires and caused the displacement of thousands of people, destroying their livelihoods and damaging fragile ecosystems.

Peace organisation PAX used satellite images of the burned areas and compared these with registered military incidents by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project. This combined information now leads to PAX’ second Environment and Conflict Alert, a warning about the impact of conflict on the environment.  

PAX’ analysis, using freely available imagery from the European Space Agency and Planet Labs, show that 32 out of 81 locations where reported military incidents took place, overlapped with burned areas recognized from satellite images. According to the data collected, a total of nearly 50.000 acres of burned land can be directly linked with the military campaign based on those numbers. About half –  around 23.000 acres – of the burned land is part of special protected areas with a rich biodiversity.

The Turkish Army started a wave of airstrikes and ground incursions from June 17, 2020,  in northern Iraq. In coordination with Iranian armed forces, about 150 locations – under suspicion of harbouring militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – were targeted. For weeks armed drones, jet fighters, helicopters and commandos continued their campaign against the PKK, which has been at war with the Turkish state since 1985. The bombing campaign coincided with the start of the summer season, marked by increasing heat and long, dry periods. Photos and video footage on social media and regular media showed huge wildfires that burned through the mountainous areas, from Duhok in the northwest to Sulaymaniyah in the east.

Impact on environment

The bombings resulted in civilians being wounded and killed . Many others had to flee their towns and villages because of the airstrikes. The rapidly spreading fires caused by bombs and artillery shells destroyed agricultural lands and livelihoods.

Increasing temperatures caused by climate change, worsened the situation: dryer vegetation burns easier. The impact of scorching flames and burned vegetation on the unique biodiversity and forested areas in this part of Iraq is immense. Host to many unique species of wildlife, birds and plants, the region also has several designated ‘Protected Areas’ by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Some of this area’s species are on the brink of extinction, with serious concerns of the remaining biodiversity in the area. Tree cover loss from (illegal) logging and fires has been rampant in mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan over the last decades, with an estimated 20% loss in vegetation since 2014, and a total of 47% compared with 1999.

The loss of biodiversity, forests and agricultural lands is hard to overcome. It prevents a short term return to normal live for local people, the Environment and Conflict Alert pleads for more attention to the disturbance of ecological balance in military conflict, which will have an environmental and humanitarian impact for generations to come.

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