As conflict abates, Iraqi villages begin to tackle “huge” problem of rubble

UNHCR’s latest Global Trends report, released every year in lead up to World Refugee Day (June 20), shows that 79.5 million people – or 1 per cent of humanity – was forcibly displaced at the end of 2019.

Some 11 million people were newly displaced in the course of last year – fleeing wars, violence or persecution.

In Iraq – a country hard hit by the displacement crisis – the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is working with its partners to recycle rubble to rebuild homes and communities.

The contrast between the satellite images of Buwaiter, Iraq from January 2015 to March 2019 are stark. Where there were once neat outlines of homes and buildings, the village, some 35 kilometers from Kirkuk, is now a messy blur of sand-coloured rubble and overgrown vegetation.

By UNEP UNITAR UNOSAT Buwaiter satellite before and after

On the ground, the level of destruction seems endless. Homes, schools and shops have been reduced to piles of cement and stone, the fall-out from years of conflict.

Between 2014 and 2017, the conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) led to the displacement of millions of Iraqis. While stability has been returning to Kirkuk governate since 2017, the rubble is preventing Buwaiter’s displaced residents from returning.

“The most important thing now is to clear all this debris,” says Ibrahim Khalaf, a resident of Buwaiter. “And if possible, help people reconstruct their homes.”

A collaboration between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is helping Buwaiter residents like Khalaf, by recycling the debris into building material, so people can rebuild their homes—and lives—again.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated, that as of April 2020, there were still around 100,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in northern Iraq’s Kirkuk Governorate. IDPs are people who have not crossed an international border but have moved to a different region within their own country due to conflict or disasters. At present, there are two IDP camps in Kirkuk, but the majority of IDPs here are urban, having moved into the city of Kirkuk, either staying with relatives or renting.

The mayor from Buwaiter would like these former residents to return home, but it is impossible to attract people when there are “huge volumes of debris”, said Ali Hamadi, Kirkuk’s Assistant Governor for Technical Affairs.

UNEP’s debris recycling project is the second of its kind in Iraq, following a pilot scheme launched in Mosul in 2019. These projects, implemented in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, have been funded by Germany’s development bank, KfW, in the case of Mosul, and the Government of Japan in the case of Kirkuk.

“After years of conflict, many Iraqis still face significant challenges in repairing and rebuilding their shattered communities,” says the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. “The volume of physical destruction in areas that saw some of the fiercest fighting is daunting. 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. I hope this exciting initiative will pave the way for similar projects in other parts of the country.”

After conflicts, rubble is often dumped haphazardly onto open land and in gullies. That is problematic because among the cement and stone can be toxic substances, like asbestos, and dangerous remnants of war, like mines and unexploded ordnance. Kirkuk authorities estimate that around 8 million tonnes of debris were created during the conflict – enough to rebuild the pyramids of Egypt. Around two-thirds of this debris consists of concrete, blocks and stones that can be recycled. The rest is mainly mudbrick.

Research by Salah Thameel, an engineer from Anbar University, found the quality of rubble is often high. Debris from the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq, meets local standards for use in civil engineering projects, including road building. It’s also cheaper than new construction material. “The cost of crushing the debris is about one-third of buying fresh quarry materials and, if transportation costs are added, it would account for only 10 percent,” says Thameel.

Reusing crushed debris also reduces the carbon emissions that come from quarrying and transporting new stone.

“UNEP and IOM’s work in Iraq would not be possible without the partnership of the local governments,” said UNEP Programme Manager, Hassan Partow. “Kirkuk authorities’ interest and commitment to a governorate-wide debris recycling programme is really driving this initiative. We hope it will serve as a model for the authorities as they embark on their own debris recycling programme.”

As in Mosul, UNEP and IOM hopes the Kirkuk project, which will focus on 10 villages, will create a type of circular economy, and create much-needed jobs through cash-for-work programmes. “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 Multaqa sub-district, where 35 villages, including Buwaiter, were destroyed during the conflict.

Read UNEP’s Environmental Management Guidelines for Debris Recycling Sites in Iraq here.

World Refugee Day falls on 20 June each year. It celebrates the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution; including refugees, asylum seekers, Internally Displaced Persons, stateless persons and returnees. The theme of World Refugee Day 2020 is “Every action counts”.

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