Burning Borderlands: Open-Source Monitoring of Conflict-caused Wildfires in Iraq

11 September 2018

Published by https://www.bellingcat.com


IRAQ: Iraq is on fire. Since late June, media has reported on wildfires in northern parts of Iraqi Kurdistan among the border with Turkey, along the border with Iran in the northeast and in the southeast of Iraq at the Hawizeh marshes, bordering Iran. A hazardous cocktail of climate change-induced increased summer heat, water shortages, military shelling of various armed groups operating in these areas combined with random human errors and spontaneous outbreaks left the earth scorched. This blog will provide a short open-source based overview based on media reporting on various locations in Iraq combined with the use of satellite imagery provided by the European Space Agencies’ Sentinel-2, NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) suite and commercial imagery provided with by Planet Labs.

How armed conflict harms the environment

A country already plagued by armed conflict and terrorism, now entering a stage of reconstruction and reconciliation, Iraq is also dealing with scorching heat. It’s not just the rising temperatures that are affecting the lives and livelihoods of Iraqi communities, but a multitude of other factors figuratively and literally adding fuel to the fire.

Lack of snowfall this winter and the resulting reduced water flow into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from Turkey resulted in water shortages in Iraq. Mismanagement of water sources, hydro-politics due to dam construction and the war that damaged existing water infrastructure aggravated the situation, particularly in the south. Violent protests erupted in Basrah against lack of action from the government side to provide clean water and functioning infrastructure to the population.

At the same time, insurgent groups have been carrying out operations against Turkish and Iranian armed forces in the north and east of the country, or else have been under attack by these forces. Shelling with light weapons and artillery resulted in the outbreak of forest and wildfires at the parched borderlands across the north and eastern borders of Iraq. People battling these fires were hindered by landmines and other unexploded ordnance, remnants from the Iran-Iraq war.

The result? Hundreds of thousands of hectares of burned lands, destroyed ecosystems and agricultural lands, air pollution and local communities suffering from smoke and loss of land. Several people were killed by the flames, including local environmentalists, while hundreds had to flee their towns and villages.

Another factor in the increased number of fires is lack of awareness among people, or else sheer negligence as exemplified by tossing cigarettes, broken glass, or campfires and barbecues in the mountains.

There is also a long history of using arson as a tactic against Kurdish insurgents in this region. A 2007 study by Wageningen University, using remote sensing, found that wildfires caused by shelling of Turkish armed forces in operations in 1994  in the Tunceli province resulted in 26.6% of the forest near villages being burned.

The study further stated that, ”The more severe burning around destroyed and evacuated villages is important evidence for the intentionality behind the use of fire against civilian populations and underscores the claim of human rights abuse.” More importantly, the decade-old study noted that “satellite images can strengthen the overall case and add to the insight in the scope and pattern of violence and destruction.” This is a recommendation we aim to implement with this blog.

Over the last years, public reports have indicated the renewal of such strategies against armed insurgents in the region as the report below from 2016 and this report by news sources associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from 2017 indicate.

There are serious concerns over whether these kind of tactics violate International Humanitarian Law, where Rule 44 of on “Due Regard for the Natural Environment in Military Operations” states that

“Methods and means of warfare must be employed with due regard to the protection and preservation of the natural environment. In the conduct of military operations, all feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental damage to the environment. Lack of scientific certainty as to the effects on the environment of certain military operations does not absolve a party to the conflict from taking such precautions.”

It is expected that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will this year update its’ 1996 “Guidelines for Military Manuals and Instructions on the Protection of the Environment in Times of Armed Conflict

Methods

We started out with collecting information from Twitter and other open-source media, such as local news agencies, on reports of wildfires, and verified them with ESA Sentinel-2 imagery on the reported dates.

To highlight the burned vegetation, we applied the vegetation index using the Color Infrared option (band 8,4,4) on the Sentinel Hub Playground. The same imagery was also used over the period of July-August and early September to spot other patched of burned lands in the border regions. The results of this were mapped on a Google Maps chart, which can be found at the end of the article. On some occasions, the burned lands can be linked with media reports of shelling by the Turkish or Iranian armed forces, while others we have no data on, and can be a result of multiple causes.

To double check our work, we have also used Planet Labs imagery of the dates for verification purposes. Other means to spot wildfires include utilizing NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) suite, which picks up fires and thermal anomalies. This option can be helpful to track more wildfires, and we have used some of the data to corroborate our findings.

Ideally, all the burned patches of land should be mapped and quantified, as it has been done for the kite fires and affected land around Gaza by Harel Dan, working at Israel’s National Nature Assessment Programme. An overview of his findings can be found here

We collected all the points where we could identify burned patches of lands between early July, when the first reports were coming in, and early September. A full overview of identified burned lands can be found on this Google Map:

Impact of wildfires

Wildfires and forest fires can have severe consequences for the environment and for local communities. Wildfires can also have beneficial effects, such as making land fertile again and can be used for maintenance. However, the scale and size of the wildfires in the areas described in this article have resulted a number of direct and long-term health and environmental risks.

Civilians can be directly killed by fires engulfing their villages and houses, or else firefighters have to face life-threatening situations — sadly this has already resulted in the death of 4 Kurdish environmentalists involved in firefighting. Firefighters also face the legacy of past wars, due to the fact that unexploded ordnance (UXOs) and landmines litter the border areas between Iraq and Iran, adding extra hazards. Similar problems also occurred in post-conflict battlefields with UXO legacies in Germany, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia and have been addressed by UN agencies and international organisations.

Destruction of agricultural land and pastures also inflicts economic damage on local communities, preventing income generation activities, while air pollution from the smoke, adds another risk layer. The latter also has impact on a larger scale, as the burning of forests and woodlands results in the loss of forest carbon sinks and release of extra greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. From an environmental perspective, large-scale and uncontrolled wildfires severely affect ecosystems, flora and fauna which can have long-term impacts for restoration.

Northern Kurdistan/Southern Turkey

Media reports using various sources indicated that some outbreaks of wildfires were caused by shelling between the Turkish army and the PKK in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Satellite imagery from that area shows that that there were at least 12 large scales fires in the border, ranging from the western Iraqi border with Turkey to the north-eastern.  border. Though it isn’t clear what the causes of the fires are, some can be attributed to shelling. In the Turkish border town of Çukurca, for example, social media reports showed a fire near a military outpost, which can be seen here and is geo-located to this point of view on Google Earth Pro.

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