Military Use Of Environmental Degradation by Islamic State, Northern Iraq

  • Mark H. Bulmer University College London
Keywords: Islamic State, Qayyara, oil wells, oil fires, sulphur fires, environmental degradation


Members of the co-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) took control of Qayyara and the surrounding oil fields in June 2014. They were expelled by Iraqi forces in August 2016, but as they withdrew north, they created a complex battlespace igniting fires at the Al-Mishraq sulphur plant and at oil wells, as well as allegedly using chemical weapons. The fires were originally intended to deter coalition airstrikes, but later became a ground tactic to thwart the advance of US-backed Iraqi government and Peshmerga forces. Oil wells in the Qayyara and Najma oil fields were intentionally set alight and it took on average 30 days to put out a single well. Plumes from oil fires were observed in satellite images over 267 days, and it is estimated that 1,33 million barrels of oil burned. The market value of the sour crude burned was between $26,7 million and $45 million. Additionally, the fires denied IS earning between $105 000 and $472 000 from road tankerage of oil to Syria. The sulphur piles ignited by IS at the Al-Mishraq sulphur plant generated plumes of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S). Using ozone monitoring data, it is estimated that 83 461 metric tonnes (MT) of SO2 were released into the atmosphere over six days. The market value of the combusted sulphur is estimated at $6,1 million. The fires set at oil wells and sulphur piles by IS caused significant lost revenue to the ‘caliphate’ but also amplified an existing humanitarian crisis in an environmentally degraded region. This was caused by a toxic legacy from previous conflicts, coupled with desertification and unsustainable agricultural practices. The fires and areas affected continued to have real health effects on civilians even after IS had been defeated. For humanitarian aid and military personnel who were exposed by being in the areas, the severity of the effect was dependent upon the level of toxicity and length of exposure. This highlights the need to monitor environmental degradation in conjunction with accurate and timely health and environmental threat assessment in conflict areas. These must continue after the fighting ends if the true effects are to be understood.