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UN Urges Quick Assessment, Clean-Up of Iraqi Environment - 2003-04-25

A United Nations agency says the magnitude of Iraq's environmental problems is so alarming that an immediate assessment and clean-up plan are urgently needed.

The U.N. Environment Program says the accumulation of physical damage to Iraq's environment from more than two decades of war, international sanctions and mismanagement by Saddam Hussein seriously threaten the welfare of the Iraqi people.

The agency released an initial study on Iraq this week, based on published sources and satellite images. It urges on-site assessments be made once the security situation permits.

U.N. Environment chief Klaus Toepfer outlined the priority hazards that need to be addressed.

"We believe that all the different parts of the environment, from hazardous wastes to sewage water, via ecosystems up to depleted uranium, need concrete studies and recommendations urgently," he said.

The U.N. environment report says that lack of investment by Saddam Hussein's regime in water and sanitation systems has led to increased pollution and health risks. It says electricity outages have often shut down pumps that remove sewage and circulate fresh water.

But that's not all. The agency says the destruction of military factories and hardware during a series of wars has released heavy metals and other dangerous substances into the air, soil and water.

Of special concern are fragments from depleted uranium munitions, fashioned from low-level radioactive wastes. The U.N. Environment Program says it wants to see this cleared, and information provided to residents on how to minimize the risk of exposure to depleted uranium dust.

Agency head Klaus Toepfer says a secondary and longer term goal is to see the country's ecosystem restored, particularly the Mesopotamian Marshlands. Scientists says about 90 percent of the marshlands were drained on Saddam Hussein's orders after the 1991 Gulf War.

"It is not only an ecological topic to restore the bio-diversity in the region," said Klaus Toepfer. "It's a humanitarian topic as well."

The marshes were home to half-a-million Shiite Muslims, who trace their lineage to ancient Babylonians and Sumerians. Scientists say the marshes have also been breeding grounds for many migratory birds, and have played a crucial role in protecting the Persian Gulf and its flourishing schools of fish.