Work begins to clean up Iraq's environment

Posted: 10 November 2005

Work is to be begin soon on the clean up of a highly polluted industrial site south of Baghdad following a study of environmental 'hot spots' in that country. It is one of five of the most dangerous industrial sites destroyed in the conflict there.

The Al Quadissiya metal plating facility has been found to contain numerous hazardous wastes including several tonnes of health hazardous cyanide compounds.

The six month clean up programme, which may start as soon as December, will entail removing, storing and treating the cyanide wastes to reduce the public health risks currently considered to be 'severe'.

Several tonnes of the acutely toxic compound, which is lethal at a dose of less than one gramme, are believed to be at the site. There is concern that children entering the site could be exposed via the skin or by accidental ingestion.

Bombed and looted

Others concerns centre around heavy metal wastes including lead, nickel,cadmium and antimony.

The facility, which was bombed, looted and then demolished in an uncontrolled manner during and after the 2003 conflict, is one of fivepriority sites studied by Iraqi experts under a project managed by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The five sites, details of which are contained in the report Assessment of Environmental 'Hotspots' in Iraq, were among a list of 50 sites presented to the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment for consideration and selection.

Some of the $900,000 secured for cleaning up the Al Quadissiya site may also be used to detoxify another of the priority sites. This is the AlSuwaira pesticide warehouse complex sited 50km south east of the Iraqi capital.

The five preliminary sites investigated are likely to be the tip of the iceberg in terms of environmental hot spots.

The report points out that the country "has a significant legacy of contaminated and derelict industrial and military sites".

It also warns that the destruction of the Iraqi military arsenal is creating new contamination and hazardous wastes problems at scrap yards andmunitions dumps which could be better managed through better working practices and basic planning.

International help needed

There are also recommendations covering the oil industry's contaminated sites and one for the establishment of a hazardous waste treatmentfacility.Overall close to $40 million is needed to meet the report's recommendations in full.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "War, conflict and instability have the left their scars on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi environment. If the country is to have a brighter and less risky future it is incumbent on the international community to help the authorities there deal with these pollution hot spots.

Narmin Othman , the Iraqi Environment Minister, said that while some of the country's environmental challenges directly related to the conflict, many were a result of the years of lack of investment in environmentalmanagement.

"This project is only a beginning. The challenge now is identify and assess all such areas of contamination in Iraq and systematically restore them. We hope to have the support of the international community as we undertake this task," she said.

The assessments of the five sites was conducted in April 2005 funded by a contribution from the Japanese government to the United Nations Development Group's Iraqi Trust Fund earmarked for UNEP.

Training Iraqi experts

The Japanese contribution is part of a wider package of activities aimed at strengthening the Iraqi government's ability to manage its environmental affairs.UNEP says.

In total, just over 30 experts from Iraq have been trained in assessment techniques at workshops in Jordan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Some of the $900,000 secured for cleaning up the Al Quadissiya site may also be used to detoxify another of the priority sites. This is the AlSuwaira pesticide warehouse complex sited 50km south east of the Iraqi capital.Pesticide pollution there is also considered a potential public health risk.

The report concludes that the most pressing issue at the Al Quadissiya plant is the dispersed piles of sodium cyanide pellets. The chemical was used in the hardening process for small arms such as rifles.

To read the full report, Assessment of Environmental 'Hot Spots' in Iraq, in English click here.