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Top UN environmental body calls for urgent action in Iraq

Top UN environmental body calls for urgent action in Iraq

The top United Nations environmental body today called for urgent action in post-war Iraq, ranging from immediate humanitarian relief and assessing the threat from weapons with depleted uranium, to the longer-term recovery of an environment that has suffered from decades of damage.

"Many environmental problems in Iraq are so alarming that an immediate assessment and a clean-up plan are needed urgently,” said Pekka Haavisto, study chairman of a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in Geneva today. “The environment must be fully integrated into all reconstruction plans if the country is to achieve a strong and sustainable recovery."

Stressing the need for urgent measures to address humanitarian issues, the report cites as priorities restoring water supply and sanitation systems, and cleaning-up possible pollution “hot spots” and waste sites to reduce the risk of disease epidemics from accumulated municipal and medical wastes.

The report says another priority should be a scientific assessment of sites struck with weapons containing depleted uranium (DU). It recommends 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. The intensive use of DU weapons has likely caused environmental contamination of as yet unknown levels and a study would require receiving precise coordinates of the targeted sites from the military.

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

The report says action is needed to integrate environmental protection into the wider post-conflict clean up and reconstruction, including environmental impact studies and the use of environmentally friendly technologies for major reconstruction projects.

Noting the need to build strong national institutions for long-term environmental management, the report declares: “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.”