UN calls for urgent aid to clean up toxic debris from summer war with Israel

UNEP team with Ministry of Environment counterparts inspect glass factory for radiation. (UNEP)

23 January 2007 - Lebanon needs urgent international support to clean up widespread pollution caused by last summer’s war between Israel and Hizbollah, including a variety of toxic and health-hazardous substances as well as unexploded cluster bombs, the United Nations environmental agency warned today on the eve of a major donors’ conference.

“The sheer scale of the debris is overwhelming existing municipal dump sites and waste management regimes,” the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said in releasing a report by 12 environmental experts who carried out an in-depth field assessment between late September and mid-October.

“Urgent action is needed to remove and safely dispose of such substances, which include ash and leaked chemicals amid concerns they represent a threat to water supplies and public health,” UNEP added in a news release.

The report stresses the importance of rapidly removing unexploded cluster bombs, especially in the south of the country where large areas of economically important agricultural land have become “out of bounds” for farmers, noting that de-mining could take up to 15 months.

On a more positive note, it indicates that oil pollution to the marine environment has been largely contained and contamination levels appear to be generally typical of coastal areas of that part of the Mediterranean - good news for the country’s economically important tourism and fisheries sectors.

In a further positive finding, particularly in light of various high profile media reports, detailed field tests and analysis of samples from sites struck by munitions found no evidence that missiles contained depleted uranium or other kinds of radioactive material, although they confirmed the use of white phosphorous, an incendiary and smoke-producing agent.

“The report provides a comprehensive picture of the outstanding environmental problems facing the Lebanon and its people,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said. “Some of these, like war-related debris, cluster bombs on farmland, toxic waste - the result of bomb damage and fires at industrial facilities - and the widespread damage to water and sewage systems require urgent remedial action.

“Others are more long-term in nature including the necessity for systematic monitoring of the health of local populations, and the environment, in certain key locations,” he added, voicing the hope that the report will galvanize the international community, including those attending a Lebanon reconstruction meeting in Paris in two days time to face up to the environmental challenge.

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