Iraqi Ports Blocked, Polluted by Hundreds of Shipwrecks

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait, October 6, 2004 (ENS) - Access to Iraq's two deepwater seaports is blocked and the marine environment of the entire northern Persian Gulf is threatened by hundreds of sunken ships that were wrecked in wars over the past 25 years, according to a detailed new report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The survey, released on Tuesday, analyzes the environmental risks posed by hazardous cargo still aboard many of the ships - munitions, pesticides and refined fuels. Pollutants are now leaking from a number of the wrecked ships, the UNDP team reported.

“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 adviser.


There are hundreds of sunken wrecks leaking pollutants in the Gulf. (Photo courtesy UNDP)
A survey of the ports of Umm Qasr and Az Zubayr by UNDP experts identified 282 ships by location and physical status. Many of the vessels sank as a result of military action in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War of 1991, and the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A comprehensive technical survey of the 40 sunken vessels and the environmental hazards they pose was carried out at the beginning of this year by UNDP, the UK's Department for International Development, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME).

The ships' locations along with quantities of unexploded ordnance and other explosives as well as sunken ammunition cargos were identified with the use of advanced underwater mapping technology and teams of specialized divers.

A two day conference began here today to review and plan the removal of 40 of the largest shipwrecks in Iraqi and Kuwaiti waters.

At the meeting, UNDP “will share the findings of the survey with potential donors and get some consensus on funding,” said Clifford.


Crews work to remove equipment from a wreck in the Gulf. (Photo courtesy UNDP)
The cost of removing the larger wrecks runs from US$1 million to $8 million per vessel, depending on size, Clifford estimates. Costs of removal will be presented to donors in five packages of up to $30 million, UNDP Iraq officials said.

Until most of these vessels are removed, Iraq will not be able to rehabilitate the Persian Gulf seaports that once handled the bulk of its commerce, UN experts said.

Kuwait is dependent for drinking water on desalination plants that purify water from the Gulf. Pollutants from the sunken ships may pose a contamination threat to the desalination plants, the report warns.

Aside from the 282 sunken vessels identified in the survey, hundreds more remain submerged in the channels and estuaries north of Umm Qasr and near the neighboring territorial waters of Kuwait, the UNDP says.

“Unless careful measures are taken, these shipwrecks could pose a serious threat to the marine environment,” said Michel Gautier, UNDP’s infrastructure manager, who has supervised UNDP’s port rehabilitation project. “They are also a major obstacle to Iraq’s economic recovery."


One of the large shipwrecks in the Gulf (Photo courtesy UNDP)
The International Atomic Energy Agency, Marine Environmental Laboratory, and the French Centre of Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollutions (CEDRE) collaborated with the UNDP team in the overall research, providing technical expertise in assessing the marine pollution in the immediate vicinity of the shipwrecks.

CEDRE experts accompanied the dive team and formulated an oil spill contingency plan to prevent environmental damage during salvage of the sunken vessels.

The contingency plan outlines scenarios and response strategies as well as proposing a detailed notification action.

"Removal of the 40 surveyed shipwrecks is important both to the operational capacity of the Iraqi ports and to the environment," the UNDP report states.

Planning the salvage operation as a whole, experts grouped the highest priority vessels in three work packages, each with a clearly defined objective.

The first work projects remove priority wrecks from the approach channel Khawr Abd Allah. The UNDP plans to dredge this area in November.

Removal of wrecks from berths at Umm Qasr port is the second work package.

The third work package includes removal of priority wrecks from Khawr az Zubayr and the berths at Al Zubayr port.


Rusting hulks, many loaded with hazardous pollutants, litter the Gulf. (Photo courtesy UNDP)
UNDP is proposing a fourth work package that purely addresses urgent environmental concerns, such as the collection and treatment of crude and fuel oil known to exist within a number of the vessels surveyed. No wrecks would be salvaged as part of this package.

A fifth work package outlines the wrecks that are located in Kuwaiti territorial waters.

Removing the ships now blocking access to the ports and restoring channels to their original depth would cost about $34 million, the UNDP team has estimated.

If port access for deep-draught vessels is restored, the savings to Iraq in one year alone would far exceed that investment, the UN agencies have calculated. The United Nations Joint Logistic Centre estimates that Iraq now spends an additional $190 million yearly importing goods overland that could be imported much more cheaply and efficiently by sea.

A $2.5 million emergency dredging program in the summer of 2003 was funded by the government of Japan, and this year, Japan allocated $24 million from the UN Trust Fund for Iraq for additional dredging, ensuring that the approach channel would be opened and maintained.

UNDP used a further $36.5 million for two large dredgers and spare parts for repairing what remains of the Iraqi dredging fleet.

UNDP has recommended the purchase of an additional $40 million dredger and the allocation of $8 million yearly for operating costs, giving Iraq’s Persian Gulf dredging fleet the capacity to maintain the whole port area.