17 February 2004

Liberia: Unep Calls for Restoration of Environment for Sustainable Future

Abidjan — The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called for the urgent restoration of public services in Liberia's shattered towns and cities to reduce pollution and improve public health.

In its first proper post-conflict assessment report in Africa, UNEP also called for tight controls on logging, which has removed vast swathes of forest cover, and poaching, which has seriously endangered the country's rich wildlife.

"The fighting in Liberia has not only had a devastating impact on its people but also on the country's rich natural resources and biodiversity," UNEP's Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said.

He noted that in Liberia, as in many other African countries, resource abundance or scarcity had been the catalyst for war and suffering.

Toepfer said Liberia's three million people had paid a high price for living in a country rich in tropical hardwoods and mineral resources that included gold and diamonds.

"The misuse of natural resources has not only been a source of conflict in Liberia and the wider region, but has also sustained it," he stressed.

UNEP said rubbish collection throughout the country had virtually stopped and the water supply systems that once existed in 10 towns in the interior had collapsed.

Even in the capital Monrovia, where some rehabilitation of infrastructure has taken place since Liberia's 14-year civil war came to an end last August, only 26 percent of the population had access to safe drinking water, UNEP said in its Desk Study on the Environment in Liberia.

Many people, it noted, relied on wells that were often polluted. The city's water works was only producing 5,800 cubic metres of safe drinking water per day, 10 percent of its output before civil war engulfed the country in 1990.

The report said Monrovia's sewage treatment plant was designed to cater for a population of 130,000 people, but the city now had a post-conflict population of 800,000.

UNEP said there was an urgent need to provide safe drinking water and functioning sewage treatment plants in all urban areas.

It recommended a geological survey of springs, aquifers and groundwater in order to ensure that hand-dug wells provided clean water. It also suggested the setting up of special drinking water protection zones around approved wells to minimise the risk of contamination.

Over 26,000 people fell ill with cholera in Monrovia last year as a result of poor santitation and polluted drinking water. Many of the cholera victims were among the 500,000 people displaced from their homes and forced to live in temporary shelters as a result of heavy fighting in the capital. More than 100 people died in the epidemic.

The report said that Monrovia and several other large towns had possessed refuse collection services before the outbreak of civil war, which disposed of an estimated 85 percent of household and commercial solid waste. However, these had all collapsed, allowing engine oil, batteries and asbestos to be dumped at will polluting the environment.

UNEP noted that the United Nations Mission in Liberia had recently established a limited rubbish collection and recycling service in Monrovia.

It called for the establishment of proper landfill sites where waste could be dumped without threatening water supplies.

UNEP said virtually all of Liberia's 182 megawatts of electricity generating capacity had been knocked out by the war and that power lines and electricity sub-stations had been damaged and vandalised. It particularly lamented the loss of the 64 megawatte Mount Coffee hydro-electric scheme near Monrovia, which once produced 35 percent of Liberia's electricity.

The report estimated that 99 percent of Liberians were now dependent on charcoal and fuel wood for cooking and heating, putting further pressure on the country's rich forest systems and wildlife.

Mangrove woods along the coast were particularly at risk from people cutting fuel wood, it noted.

UNEP said Liberia's rich timber resources had been exploited by various armed factions to finance their war machines. As a result of uncontrolled logging, the country's forest cover had fallen from 38 percent to 31 percent during the 14 years of civil war, it said.

New logging roads had been built which had accelerated the fragmentation of the forest habitat and made access easier for poachers to penetrate the bush. UNEP said chimpanzees were among the species under threat.

It urged international donors to equip the government's Forest Development Authority with new vehicles and radios so that it could control illegal logging more effectively.

The report said individuals mining for alluvial gold and diamonds had felled riverside forests creating flood risks. They had also polluted rivers with toxic chemicals used in the mineral extraction process such as cyanide and mercury.

UNEP also expressed concern about heavy pollution from 300 million tonnes of iron ore waste at the currently inactive Mount Nimba iron mine near the Guinean border. This had caused the acidification of water systems and the death of freshwater life over a wide area, it said.

"We hope to do a proper field mission at a later date to identify the hot spots, point up the specific locations and make recommendations on appropriate actions that should be taken," Nick Nuttal, UNEP's head of Media told IRIN.

"This has been our approach in other war torn countries like, Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Occupied Palestinian territories and Iraq," he said.

UNEP said it had received requests from several other African countries affected by conflict, including Sudan, Angola and Somalia to carry out similar environmental assessments.

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