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Environmental problems plague Iraq

Many of Iraq's rivers and marshlands have been polluted by waste. (DigitalGlobe)

A Swiss-backed study by the United Nations has revealed serious environmental damage in Iraq.

The report said the problems resulted from decades of war, sanctions and government mismanagement.

"Many environmental problems in Iraq are so alarming that an immediate assessment and a cleanup plan are needed urgently," said the chairman of the study, Pekka Haavisto.

The evaluation of Iraq's environment was conducted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and financed by the Swiss government.

The project was initiated at a humanitarian conference in Geneva, which was convened by the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, in February.

The aim of the study was to provide a preliminary evaluation of the environmental hazards in post-war Iraq, as well as to outline a short-term strategy for protecting civilians and aid workers.

According to the UNEP's chief spokesman, Michael Williams, environmental and humanitarian issues go hand-in-hand.

"Some of these problems will clearly have an impact on people right now, such as the damage to fresh water supplies, air pollution and the possibility of dangerous metals and chemicals lying around," he told swissinfo.

The report stresses the need to restore the country's water and sanitation systems and to clean up pollution "hot spots" and waste sites, in order to reduce the risk of disease epidemics.

Military waste

The study also cites the presence of widespread military debris throughout the country, as the result of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War and the latest conflict.

According to the UNEP, it is impossible to gauge the environmental risks posed by such waste, which ranges from unexploded landmines to contaminated soil.

But the agency does recommend that priority should be given to conducting a scientific assessment of sites struck by coalition weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) - a toxic and radioactive material.

The experts said that guidelines should be distributed as soon as possible to military and civilian personnel, and to the general public, on how to minimise the risk of accidental exposure to DU.

Long-term recovery

Much of the report focuses on repairing the infrastructures, which were destroyed in the coalition's air and ground strikes. But it also underscores the importance of coming up with a plan to deal with the country's chronic environmental problems.

"The Iraqi environment is under extraordinary stress and has been so for some years," said Williams. "This is due to a variety of conflicts, international sanctions and quite a bit of environmental mismanagement by the previous regime."

The UNEP said reconstruction strategies must take into account Iraq's fragile ecosystems, including the rivers and marshlands, which have been heavily damaged by troop and tank movements and pollution.

"Over the longer term, there's a great deal of work to be done in reviving Iraq's natural environment," he said.

"In the years and decades to come, these issues must be integrated into any rebuilding schemes... because a healthy environment will have an immense impact on the health of the society and the economy."

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

In brief

The United Nations Environment Programme has warned that Iraq faces severe environmental problems.

In a study financed by the Swiss government, the agency found that much of the country's infrastructure has been destroyed by war, international sanctions and government mismanagement.

The agency calls for immediate action to repair the damage to Iraq's water and sanitation systems, and long-term recovery plans to deal with chronic environmental problems.

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