Mine action operators could help increase our understanding of conflict pollution, protecting communities and their own staff in the process.
Mine action organisations are not environmental organisations. However, they could contribute to the protection of communities by integrating more environmental data collection into their activities. Linsey Cottrell explores this idea – the theme of a recent panel event in Geneva – with a particular focus on conflict pollution.
Towards an integrated approach
In June, we took part in the 25th International Meeting of Mine Action National Directors and United Nations Advisers (NDM-UN25). Our side event featured UNIDIR‘s Erica Mumford, Lucy Pinches from Mine Action Review and Hilde Jørgensen from Norwegian People’s Aid, and discussed the environmental impact of the use of explosive weapons. All the speakers highlighted the need for an integrated approach across humanitarian programmes to ensure that these environmental risks are identified and mitigated.
Conflicts generate pollution, create the conditions where polluting practices can flourish, and impede the ability of states to address the harm it causes. Conflict pollution describes both pollution from the conflict itself and that caused from the absence or collapse of environmental governance during and after conflicts.
Conflict pollution can create both immediate and long-term exposure risks for people and ecosystems, and inflict physical, psychological, socioeconomic, and cultural harm on individuals and communities. A framework by Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic and CEOBS, sets out the key principles needed to meet the short and long term needs of people affected by these toxic remnants of war, and support the development of effective assistance programmes. The inadequacy of data collection remains a key barrier to assisting communities.
The use of explosive weapons can cause serious pollution and environmental impacts, including the generation of debris and the contamination of land and water with hazardous materials. This can present risks to local people, as well as to the humanitarian and mine action workers assisting them.
Environmental indicators and data
UNIDIR recently published its Second Menu of Indicators to measure the reverberating effects on civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). The menu covers four focus areas – WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), food security, economic opportunities and environmental degradation – and provides indicators as a tool to understand, measure and compare. Needless to say, a healthy environment is a human right, with the health and wellbeing of civilians dependent on environmental protection and access to sanitation, and clean water, air and land.
The UNIDIR menu includes a total of 19 first, second and third level indicators of environmental degradation. First level indicators relate to the environmental effects from the direct damage and destruction caused by the use of explosive weapons, while second level indicators relate to the effects from changes in key services. The third level indicators relate to the changes in civilian wellbeing.
The war in heavily industrialised Ukraine has seen attacks on a wide range of industrial facilities and infrastructure, with chemical releases to air, soil and water. Industry in Ukraine is also often located in close proximity to where people live. To assess the impacts, the collection of data is critical.
Databases of environmental incidents can be used by government authorities or other humanitarian actors conducting field-based environmental assessments. They can help support the prioritisation of high-risk sites, and inform follow-up sampling, evaluation and remedial action. For Ukraine, NGOs including CEOBS, Zoi Environment Network and PAX have been collating data on environmental incidents to support agencies, and to give an indication of the geographical spread of damage and the severity of incidents. These currently rely on remote assessments, including the use of satellite imagery, data from any ground-based monitoring networks, as well as social and traditional media sources. Ground truthing, data collection and validation are an important next step.
Beyond domestic protection and recovery needs, databases from conflict-affected settings could feed into global initiatives such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s new International Network on Soil Pollution (INSOP). INSOP has the ambition to develop a spatial database and map of soil pollution. Data from conflict-affected settings could be an important component of this, particularly where national or civil society capacities may have been impacted by war.
Can mine action organisations play a role?
Mine Action Organisations (MAO), such as Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), are not environmental specialists, but they survey ground, clearing landmines and other explosive ordnance. They also identify risk priorities and communicate these risks to local communities. Given the technical or capacity constraints in many conflict-affected settings, collaboration and the provision of basic environmental data and incident reports by MAOs could be a useful resource for international organisations, national authorities and civil society actors alike. Environmental data should also inform occupational risk assessments for mine action staff.
In areas contaminated by chemicals, debris and other hazardous materials, a MAO can report and provide eyewitness accounts of conflict pollution incidents. Each MAO working in a conflict-affected setting could play a critical role, supported by guidelines that explain what to look out for, how to recognise potential environmental issues, and who to report them to. In some cases, soil sampling and analysis may also contribute to national and regional databases and local mitigation measures. NPA has already piloted a sampling project in Vietnam, which has helped develop methodologies and field sampling protocols.
But MAOs can do more, and play their part in improving more general environmental outcomes. NPA has a Standard Operating Procedure on environmental management. It states that NPA’s aim is to:
“leave the environment in a state that is similar to, and where possible better than, before mine action operations commenced.”
In this respect, NPA Vietnam is developing its Total Mine Action Survey, which integrates environmental questions into community liaison and non-technical surveys. This will include information on potential climate change risks and other environmental data, helping to identify vulnerable communities and any priority action that might be needed.
Mine action programmes typically operate in countries where solid waste management is a problem, but this should not mean ignoring the issue. NPA Laos has been working on ways to reduce waste generated and raise awareness on waste recycling and composting. Similarly, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, NPA is liaising with the local community and authorities to ensure that appropriate plans are in place and implemented during work within a local conservation area in the Brcko District.
Sharing knowledge and good practice
The environmental issues linked to conflict, and to the consequences of mine action activities, must be fully understood. Doing so helps minimise adverse impacts, and helps support informed decision-making about any residual environmental risks. The increased engagement and interest in mainstreaming the environment in MAOs is encouraging, but it shouldn’t be done in isolation: cooperation, understanding and collective action are also needed.
In 2021, Mine Action Review published an environmental policy paper. The paper provides an overview of environmental impacts, norms and standards, and of environmental mitigation measures, as well as ways forward for sector. The Environmental Issues and Mine Action (EIMA) working group was established following 2020’s NDM, and is a fully inclusive forum for individuals working in mine action and interested in engaging with the sector’s environmental issues.
The EIMA group meets online every two months and focuses on knowledge sharing and progress on institutional environmental mainstreaming. Current members include representatives from organisations such as the GICHD, HALO Trust, ICRC, MAG, NPA, Legacies of War, PeaceTrees Vietnam and UNDP, as well as private contractors and other NGOs. It is proving to be a useful platform to share information, knowledge and ideas and to learn about the activities underway across these organisations.
The EIMA working group is currently co-chaired by Lucy Pinches at MAR and Linsey Cottrell at CEOBS. A dedicated website with links to supporting resources will be live shortly. Please do get in touch if you’d like to join the next meeting or learn more about the environmental initiatives already underway.
The slides from June’s NDM-UN25 side event are available here.
Linsey Cottrell is CEOBS’ Environmental Policy Officer.