UNDP warns of pollution from sunken ships in Persian Gulf

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has warned that hundreds of sunken ships are blocking the access to Iraq's principal seaports and threatening the marine environment of the northern Persian Gulf.

The ships range from large freighters and tankers to small tugs and dhows. UNDP has identified 282 sunken ships and provided detailed information on the location and condition of 40 larger wrecks they say should be removed from the harbours as soon as possible.

Many of the vessels sank as a result of military action in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, the Gulf war of 1991, and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Until these are removed Iraq will not be able to rehabilitate the Persian Gulf seaports that once handled the bulk of its commerce, the UNDP has warned.

The survey also analyses the environmental risks posed by the potentially dangerous cargo in many of the ships holds, including munitions, pesticides and refined fuels. Pollutants are now leaking from a number of the wrecked ships, the report states.

“The current is very strong in the area where the vessels are, so a lot of pollution is being carried out to the Gulf and is spreading,” said Paul Clifford, a UNDP survey advisor.

The pollutants from the sunken ships may pose hazards to Kuwaiti as well as Iraqi waters, experts said, noting Kuwait’s dependence on Persian Gulf desalination plants for drinking water. Aside from the 282 sunken vessels identified in the UNDP survey, hundreds more remain submerged in the channels and estuaries north of Umm Qasr and near the neighbouring territorial waters of Kuwait, experts say.

“Unless careful measures are taken, these shipwrecks could pose a serious threat to the marine environment,” said Michael Gautier, UNDP’s infrastructure manager, who has supervised UNDP’s port rehabilitation project.

Removing the larger wrecks runs from US$1 million to US$8 million per vessel.

Umm Qasr and Az Zubayr, the two ports surveyed, are Iraq’s only deepwater ports. They are vital for receiving reconstruction supplies and have the potential to become major cargo and container-handling facilities.

Some 11,000 Iraqis were employed at the ports before the first Gulf War in 1991. Only 1,000 are employed there today.

Removing the ships currently impeding access to the ports themselves and restoring channels to their original depth would cost approximately US$34 million, the UNDP estimates. However, if port access for deep draught vessels is restored, the savings to Iraq in one year alone would far exceed that.

The UN Joint Logistics Centre estimates that Iraq now spends an additional US$190 million a year importing goods overland that could be imported much more efficiently and cheaper by sea.

The UNDP survey was completed with sponsorship from the UK DFID, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Regional Organisation for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME).

By David Hopkins

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