Wim Zwijnenburg on Using Data to Visualize the Impacts of Conflict on the Environment
Through open source information, remote sensing, and existing data, we can have a better sense of how conflict impacts the environment and how it then impacts people depending on the environment, said Wim Zwijnenburg, a Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader for the Dutch peace organization, PAX, in this week’s Friday Podcast. Wim sat down for an interview with ECSP’s Amanda King at the first International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding, hosted at the University of California, Irvine, in October 2019.
Data Visualization for Advocacy
PAX works to improve data visualization, especially information about what’s happening on the ground in conflicts. Drawing on everything from social media and existing models, to satellite imagery from remote sensing platforms, they identify hotspots, see if environmental infrastructure has been hit, and monitor specific incidents. “Eventually,” he said, “we want to show that you can do way more and you can improve the conflict analysis and monitoring with existing means.”
One of the most successful examples where data influenced policy was in Iraq. In 2014, the Islamic State took over the large parts of Northern Iraq. It used the environment as a weapon by setting fire to oil wells and sulfur stocks, resulting in release of a plume of SO2 in the air, the hospitalization of 1,000 people, and death of a dozen people. At the same time, they damaged water infrastructure, reducing access to clean water and usable land. Together with the Iraqi Ministry of Environment we published our report showing what was happening in Iraq in terms of environmental pollution and what needs to be done, Zwijnenburg said. Information we’ve been collecting since 2014 helped to advocate for a strong UN resolution to speed up the process for post-conflict environmental assessment, he said, and hopefully save them time and money.
Modern Weapons Target Environmental Infrastructure
Modern warfare and new weapons are changing military tactics. In Yemen, the Houthis have developed a drone system that can hit targets more than 1,000 kilometers away. Over the last year, in response to daily bombings, the Houthis targeted airports, water filtration stations, and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. And in September 2019, 25 drones and missiles, likely from Iran, hit the biggest oil processing plant in the world in Saudi Arabia.
Given newer weapons’ capabilities, targeting environmental infrastructure has become a way for states and armed groups to pressure others. Zwijnenburg painted a bleak picture of the future, describing a world that must contend with modern warfare and technologies’ long-term environmental consequences, increasing tensions over access to natural resources, and more gruesome technology for attacking others.
However, he noted that innovative technologies can help us see the impacts of conflict and may also help us more quickly respond to environmental issues. Since using technologies in new ways gives us more insight into what is happening in conflicts, we can respond faster and hold perpetrators more accountable. What’s more, the ability to visualize the impacts of conflict can also help raise awareness of the links between environmental damage and conflict. “It is empowering communities because people have the ability and the tools to understand what is happening around them,” said Zwijnenburg, “and that information is useful for policy work and political pressure.”