Smoke from burning oil spreading across northern Iraq on 3 September 2016 — Image: © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Mosul —the making of a humanitarian disaster

Satellite imagery of the Mosul area over the last few months looks like what you might find in an ominous Hollywood scene about war in the Middle East. The giant clouds of black smoke and toxic fumes have been shadowing the landscape and clogging the air as the winds shift, since late August. That was when the Iraqi military recaptured Qayyara from the armed group calling itself Islamic State. The armed group fled, but set fire to the Qayyara oil field on their way out. Despite ongoing attempts to extinguish the fires, they have continued for months.

It is rare that I see such smoke in an overview image and especially for the area on fire to be so large. This destructive tactic not only impacts the air quality and local economy, it also creates complications as humanitarian groups prepare for the probable impending displacement of an estimated 700,000 civilians as operations continue to strategically move towards recapturing Mosul.

Smoke coming from areas east of Mosul on 17 October 2016 — highlighted with yellow squares. Image: © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

On 17 October 2016, smoke is visible in overview imagery, originating from the villages just east of Mosul, as the offensive to take the city begins. Further east, UNHCR is quickly erecting a small camp for 12,000 civilians in hopes they will find safe passage between Mosul and the site, but the most accessible route is through the smoking gauntlet.

Ongoing construction of the Hassansham camp, east of Mosul, between 21 September 2016 and 18 October 2016. Planetscope images ©2016 Planet Labs, Inc.

Overall, UNHCR has five camps ready to host 45,000 civilians but will soon have enough for 150,000. It is estimated 200,000 could be displaced in the first two weeks. Large influxes of people have yet to be documented in the newly constructed camps. However, this will only be a matter of time, considering the escalation of violence affecting civilians, including reports of civilians being used as human shields. There is a real concern that the same human rights abuses seen in Falluja and other parts of Iraq will be repeated.