Urgent action needed to heal Iraq's environment, says UN

Posted: 25 April 2003

A preliminary report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the environmental threats facing post-war Iraq, calls for urgent measures to address humanitarian issues as well as action for long-term recovery.

Priorities should include restoring the water supply and sanitation systems, cleaning-up pollution 'hot spots' and municipal and medical waste sites to reduce the risk of disease epidemics.

The UNEP report also calls for an urgent scientific assessment of sites struck with weapons containing depleted uranium (DU). It recommends that guidelines be distributed immediately to military and civilian personnel, and to the general public, on how tominimize the risk of accidental exposure to DU.

"Environmental protection is a humanitarian issue," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "Not only do environmental hazardsthreaten human health and well-being, but they can impede aid operations." Clean-up plan

Additional action is needed to integrate environmental protection into the wider post-conflict clean-up and reconstruction process.Recommendations include conducting environmental impact assessments, using environmentally friendly technologies for major reconstruction projects and maximizing the exchange of information to avoid further risks to human health and the environment.

"Many environmental problems in Iraq are so alarming that an immediate assessment and a clean-up plan are needed urgently. The environment must be fully integrated into all reconstruction plans if the country is to achieve a strong and sustainable recovery," said PekkaHaavisto, the Study Chairman.

UNEP's report, which was financed by the Swiss Government, says a knowledge base is needed to tackle Iraq's chronic environmental problems. National and international expertiseshould be assembled to conduct further studies, including field missions and data gathering. Priority issues could include hazardous wasteand emissions, water-resource management, ecosystems (especially the Mesopotamian Marshlands) and depleted uranium.

Strong institutions

There is also a need to build strong national institutions and capacities for long-term environmental management, the report says. Working within a UN framework, national and international experts should be engaged in defining the institutional,legislative, capacity building and resource needs for effective andsustainable environmental management. Iraq's accession to key environmental treaties should be supported.

The UNEP report concludes that the current Iraq conflict has undoubtedly added to the chronic environmental stresses that have accumulated in Iraq over the past two decades. The country's environment shows severe damage from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War, environmental mismanagement by the former Iraqi regime and the economic impact of sanctions.

One major threat is the accumulation of physicaldamage to the country's environmental infrastructure. In particular, the destruction of, and lack of investment in, water and sanitation systems has led to higher levels of pollution and health risks.

Saline water

On top of this, continuous electricity cuts have often stopped the pumps that remove sewage and circulate freshwater. Power failures have alsoaffected the pumps that remove saline water from irrigated lands in the southern loodplain,leading to widespread water logging and salinization.

The destruction of military and industrial infrastructure during Iraq's various conflicts has released heavy metals and other hazardoussubstances into the air, soil, and freshwater supplies. An assessment of the country's chemical risks and levels of environmental contamination, however, has yet to be conducted.

Smoke from the oil-well fires and burning oil-trenches during the past two months has caused local air pollution and soil contamination. Thelack of investment in the oil industry in recent years has reduced maintenance and raised the risk of leaks and spills.

Heavy bombing and the movement of large numbers of military vehicles and troops have further degraded natural and agricultural ecosystems. When the desert's hard-packed surface is disturbed, the underlying sand is exposed and often erodes or blows away. Meanwhile, transboundary pollution and a lack of river basin management have led to the degradation of Iraq's major waterways.

The intensive use of DU weapons has thought to have caused environmental contamination of as yet unknown levels or consequences. Conducting a DU study would require receiving precise coordinates of the targeted sites from the military. Iraq's multiple military conflicts have also resulted in large and widespread quantities of military debris, including unexploded ordnance.

Source: UNEP News Release 22nd April, 2003

The UNEP Desk Study on Environment in Iraq was prepared by UNEP's Post Conflict Assessment Unit as a contribution to international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq. It provides a rapid overview on the basis of published and on-line information sources, drawing heavily on media reports and military briefings for the most recent conflict.