Geneva, 24 April 2003 – A new report by the United Nations Environment Programme on environmental conditions in Iraq offers a preliminary assessment of the main environmental threats facing the country and recommends actions for immediate relief and long-term recovery.
The report stresses the need for urgent measures to address humanitarian issues. Priorities should include restoring the water supply and sanitation systems, cleaning-up possible pollution ‘hot spots’ and cleaning-up waste sites to reduce the risk of disease epidemics from accumulated municipal and medical wastes.
Another priority activity should be conducting a scientific assessment of sites struck with weapons containing depleted uranium (DU). The report recommends that guidelines be distributed immediately to military and civilian personnel, and to the general public, on how to minimize the risk of accidental exposure to DU.
“Environmental protection is a humanitarian issue,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. “Not only do environmental hazards threaten human health and well-being, but they can impede aid operations.”
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 between key stakeholders to avoid accidental 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 Pekka Haavisto, the Study Chairman.
UNEP’s report on the environmental situation in Iraq was initiated at a humanitarian meeting convened in Geneva in February 2003 by the government of Switzerland, which has also financed the present report. Since then, UNEP’s proposal for conducting a full-scale assessment in Iraq has been included within the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Flash Appeal for the Humanitarian Requirements of the Iraq Crisis, launched on 28 March 2003.
The report also calls for building the knowledge base for tackling chronic environmental problems. National and international expertise should be assembled for conducting further studies, including field missions and data gathering. Priority issues could include hazardous waste and emissions, water-resource management, ecosystems (especially the Mesopotamian Marshlands) and depleted uranium.
There is also a need for building strong national institutions and capacities for long-term environmental management. The environment must be treated as a priority issue in the development of democratic governance and institutional structures. Working within a UN framework, national and international experts should be engaged in defining the institutional, legislative, capacity building and resource needs for effective and sustainable 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.
A major threat to the Iraqi people is the accumulation of physical damage 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.
On top of this, continuous electricity cuts have often stopped the pumps that remove sewage and circulate freshwater. Power outages have also affected the pumps that remove saline water from irrigated lands in the southern floodplain, 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 hazardous substances 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. The lack 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 likely 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.
The UNEP Desk Study on Environment in Iraq was prepared by UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment Branch 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.
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