Leaving a Mess in Mesopotamia

Long-Term Damage From a Short-Term War

UN agencies seem most likely to step in to deal with Iraq's environmental problems. The UNEP started a "desk study" of the environment of Iraq days before the bombing began. If the Security Council issues a mandate, UNEP's Post-Conflict Assessment Unit would enter Iraq to gauge the damage and recommend solutions. But that doesn't guarantee that the money will be made available to carry out those solutions. In the aftermath of past wars, UNEP proposals have been hamstrung by limited funding. After the war in Kosovo, the UNEP identified four "hot spots" of contamination caused by NATO bombing and 27 cleanup projects, with an estimated cost of $21 million. It took UNEP nearly two years to do the analysis and raise money—only $12.5 million so far—before starting the cleanup, said Sriram Gopal, staff scientist for the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland, and co-author of a study examining the effects of the NATO bombing of a car factory in Serbia. "If the spills had been treated right after the bombing," Gopal said, "it would have been relatively simple. But now the chemicals are in the groundwater and it's much more complex."

Since the first Gulf War, a dozen nations, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, along with other countries that helped in the environmental cleanup, have submitted nearly $80 billion in claims to the United Nations; most of the claims haven't yet been paid. In this war, funding hasn't come through yet for UNEP's initial request of half a million dollars, part of a UN appeal to its members for $2.2 billion in emergency assistance to Iraq in the next six months. During the war to date, USAID has spent half a billion dollars on aid to Iraq, virtually none of it on environmental issues.

A short attention span may be as limiting as shallow pockets. In 1991, UNEP recommended creation of an international plan to rehabilitate the environment, a sort of Marshall Plan to deal with the environmental disaster in the Middle East caused by the first Gulf War. The plan never materialized, and much of the damage remains. When asked why, Nick Nuttall, UNEP's head of communications, said there was no particular reason. "After a war. there's lots of goodwill and good ideas," he said. "And then the world moves on."

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