Restoring the Battered and Broken Environment of Liberia One of the Keys to a New and Sustainable Future
Nairobi, 13 February 2004 - Nearly 15 years of war and conflict have severely compromised the environment of Liberia, with drinking water and sewage systems in such a damaged state they represent a serious threat to public health.
Urgent action is also needed to restore electricity supplies, including Liberia’s main hydro-electric plant. Serious electricity shortages are forcing many Liberians to chop down trees and destroy precious habitats like mangrove swamps for fuel wood and charcoal.
Poaching of wild animals for food has sharply intensified over recent years, partly as a result of a rapid penetration of roads and labourers into forest areas to support illegal logging. Poaching may now represent a major threat to the country’s rich, rare and unique wildlife, including its small but important populations of chimpanzees.
There is also an urgent need to salvage damaged and sunken ships from major ports and coastal sites to reduce the threats of marine pollution and to improve maritime safety.
Collections of urban and municipal waste had all but ceased as a result of the conflict leading to waste mountains and forcing local people to burn their rubbish, creating air pollution and further threats to human health.
Overall there is an urgent need for the international community to assist the Liberian authorities in repairing the national and local administrative structures responsible for environmental monitoring, enforcement and protection.
International assistance is also needed in areas including funding and training so that Liberia’s new Environment Protection Agency (EPA) can become operational.
These are just some of the findings from the first ever post-conflict environmental assessment of the West African country. The report, Desk Study on the Environment in Liberia, has been compiled by the Post Conflict Assessment Branch of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It carries 60 recommendations for improving the environment and development prospects for Liberia.
The report was prepared as part of the United Nations Development Group’s (UNDG) Needs Assessment for Liberia. The Needs Assessment defines for the United Nations, donor countries and non governmental organizations the priority issues that need to be addressed in order to put Liberia and its people on the path to a stable and sustainable future.
Gyude Bryant, chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, has highlighted the important role of the environment in the reconstruction process and has welcomed the UNEP report as a valuable contribution to the rehabilitation of Liberia.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said the signing of the Liberian peace agreement in Accra, Ghana, in August 2003, the establishment of the National Transitional Government of Liberia and the presence of the United Nations peacekeeping mission there offered new and real hope for the country.
“The fighting in Liberia has not only had a devastating impact on its people but also on the country’s rich natural resources and biodiversity. In Liberia, as is the case in many other African countries, resource abundance or scarcity is all too often the catalyst for war and suffering. The Liberian people have been forced to pay a high price for living in a country rich in prized timber and mineral resources,” he said.
“In modern Africa, environment security and effective and fair resource governance are at the very heart of peacemaking and peacekeeping. The misuse of natural resources has not only been a source of conflict in Liberia and the wider region, but has also sustained it,” said Mr Toepfer.
“Effective and strong management to promote the sustainable use of natural resources is central to preventing additional conflict in Liberia. For the long-suffering people of Liberia, many of whom have been displaced and separated from their families, this new era provides them with a chance for a better future,” he added.
Indeed, given that the post-conflict unemployment rate is running at an estimated 85 per cent, UNEP argues that offering employment in areas of environmental improvements could offer much-needed paid work and hope for Liberia’s more than three million people.
Areas identified include restoring water and sanitation supplies, cleaning up pollution sites, collecting and separating waste, carrying out environmental protection projects and assisting in ensuring that environmental considerations form part of the reconstruction process.
Key Findings and Recommendations
Water and Sanitation
Only 26 per cent of the population now has access to safe drinking water. Many people are resorting to sinking wells to siphon off groundwater that may be contaminated. In the capital, Monrovia, the current treated water production rate is 10 per cent or 5,800 cubic metres a day, when compared with pre-war levels (1990).
The sewage treatment plant in the capital, designed to treat waste water from 130,000 people, now has to treat a current, post-conflict population of around 800,000.
The water supply systems in ten urban areas outside Monrovia have completely collapsed.
One in three Liberians have been displaced by war. An estimated half a million people are living in temporary housing or refugee camps, often without adequate sanitation facilities, which in turn is aggravating the situation. In December 2003, a chronic outbreak of cholera occurred, totaling more than 26,000 cases.
Safe drinking water and a functioning sewage treatment and sanitation system are among the most urgent needs especially in urban areas.
The report also recommends a geological survey of springs, aquifers and groundwater in order to better manage supplies from temporary hand-dug wells and to minimise the risk of contamination by, for example, setting up special drinking water protection zones.
Prior to 1990, an estimated 85 per cent of household and commercial solid waste was collected from Monrovia. Towns and cities such as Buchanan, Gbganga, Greenville, Harper, Kakata and Robertsport also reportedly had waste collection and disposal systems in place too.
After 14 years of conflict, these services have mostly collapsed and rubbish trucks, transfer stations, depots and equipment have been looted, heavily damaged or destroyed.
Wastes have, as a result, built up in urban areas and there are no sanitary landfills or rubbish tips. Wastes, which may include old engine oil, batteries and asbestos, are either being burnt or dumped, presenting risks to the environment and human health from air pollution and the leaking of pollutants into rivers and groundwaters.
The report notes that the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has recently helped organize a limited waste separation operation involving the recovery of metals for recycling.
However, UNEP is calling for further action, including Environmental Impact Assessments to determine places where sanitary landfills can be established able to take the volumes of waste being produced without threatening water supplies.
Liberia generated 182MW of electricity through a combination of hydro and oil-fired generation. However, the conflict has left power plants, electricity sub-stations and transmission lines damaged and vandalized.
The single biggest loss has been the Mount Coffee hydropower plant which, prior to the conflict, generated 64MW or 35 per cent of Liberia’s electricity.
Leaking oil storage facilities, including ones at Free Port harbour, Monrovia, alongside leaking pipelines and transformer fluids, threaten rivers and groundwaters.
Meanwhile, the report estimates that as much as 99 per cent of Liberians are now dependent on charcoal and fuel wood for cooking and heating, putting further pressure on the country’s rich forest systems and wildlife.
Indeed there is concern that, as result of poverty and low incomes, Liberia is starting to becoming a major exporter of charcoal in the region.
Clearance for fuel of coastal mangrove swamps, which are precious nursery grounds for fish and natural flood defenses, is also flagged up as an important concern.
The UNEP report recommends that the Liberian Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy undertake an assessment of the potential of alternative, environmentally friendly energy sources including wind, solar, tidal and biomass.
There is also the need to invest in more efficient and energy saving charcoal and fuel wood stoves as well as improved charcoal manufacturing. Special forests or “woodlots”, designated for fuel wood and charcoal production, should be planted and developed to take the pressure off natural forests.
Liberia’s rich timber resources have been exploited and exported by various warring factions to pay for their arms and armies. This has led to a sharp increase in logging roads which has accelerated fragmentation of forest habitat, provided easier access for hunters and poachers and increased the spread of slash-and-burn agriculture.
It is estimated that, since 1990, forest cover in Liberia has fallen by around seven per cent to just over 31 per cent. A United Nations Security Council Resolution in May 2001, which imposed sanctions on Liberian ‘blood diamonds’, led the warring factions to seek alternative income streams.
It is reported that timber was found to be almost as lucrative as diamonds. As a result, sanctions were extended to timber in 2003.
The UNEP report calls for international assistance to strengthen the Liberian Forestry Development Authority with skills in administration and sustainable forestry management. The authority also needs re-equipping with vehicles and communications systems so that it can better control illegal logging.
Mining for diamonds, gold and iron ore has also taken its toll. It is estimated that there are around 5,000 unlicensed and 1,000 licensed mines and dealing operations in Liberia.
“Artisinal mining of gold and diamonds results in the clearing and excavation of large areas of forest and river beds,” says the report. It also can lead to uncontrolled discharges of suspended solids and harmful metals and cyanide, clogging and polluting rivers.
Meanwhile, the use of poisonous and toxic mercury in the extraction of gold from ore, is both and environmental and public health risk.
One mining site of particular concern is the iron ore mine in Mount Nimba, where four square kilometres of land has been heavily affected by erosion and where some 300 million tonnes of mine wastes have been dumped, causing acidification of water systems and the death of freshwater life.
The report makes several recommendations including one that would require developers of mines to clean up and restore the land after operations have ceased. Environmental Impact Assessments should be carried out prior to the opening of new mines, it says.
Other Key Recommendations
A full-scale environmental assessment, carried out by Liberian government agencies in cooperation with the UN and scientific organizations, should be undertaken, followed up by clean-ups of environmental hot spots.
The war has led to huge movements of people whose humanitarian needs are paramount. Displaced people and their concentration in informal settlements, temporary housing and refugee camps also carries an environmental impact.
The report calls for the full adoption and implementation of the Environmental Guidelines issued by the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees.
It also calls for environmental assessments at former and current refugee camps to see the extent of deforestation and pollution before the drawing up of rehabilitation projects aimed at minimizing tensions between those within the camps and between the camps and neighbouring villages.
The Transitional Government should introduce rules and regulations on the hunting of wildlife, including hunting seasons and a list of permitted species. Alternative sources of food should be developed, including poultry farms and sustainable fishing. Liberia currently has a small fishing fleet.
Liberia, due to its flag of convenience status, has the second largest merchant fleet in the world. The current transition period offers an opportunity to improve the safety and environmental standards of Liberian-flagged vessels.
Notes to Editors
The International Conference on Reconstruction in Liberia was held in New York in 5.-6.2.2004. The UNEP Liberia report was available in the conference, and several donors expressed the clear interlinkage between environment and Liberia´s ability to recover.
Special attention was paid in the conference to the need for sustainable forest management in Liberia and giving resources to the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the country.
UNEP will continue to work with the Transitional Government of Liberia, with other UN agencies and with the donor community to facilitate the implementation of environmental recommendations in the UNDG Needs Assessment and in the UNEP Desk Study on the environment in Liberia.
The Liberian study is the latest from UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment Branch. Others have included the Balkans, Afghanistan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Iraq.
The full report is available at
For More Information Please Contact Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP’s Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 20 623292, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 682656, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 20 623084, Mobile: 254 733 632755, E-mail: email@example.com
UNEP News Release 2004/08