x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Kuwaiti pupils lead air quality protests

Thousands of Kuwaiti students strike to protest pollution from refineries and chemicals plants.

Thousands of students in southern Kuwait have stayed home from school to protest against air pollution from local oil refineries and industrial plants. Yesterday, the schoolchildren, who live in the Ali Sabah Al Salem residential area 55km south of Kuwait City, began a two-day walk-out called by the area's volunteer environmental protection committee.

"The strike was total today. All 15,000 students stayed at home," Ahmad al Shuraian, the engineer who heads the committee, told Agence France-Presse after addressing 200 people who braved rain to attend a local gathering. The Ali Sabah Al Salem residential area, named after the chief of Kuwait's national guard who is also the oldest member of emirate's ruling Al Sabah family, is known locally as Umm al Haiman.

It lies just downwind from the country's three refineries, as well as dozens of chemicals plants and factories that have sprung up around the Burgan oilfield, the world's second-largest conventional crude deposit. Local residents, including children, suffer from unusually high incidences of respiratory diseases such as asthma, and cancer and skin rashes. They are angry Kuwait's government has not honoured election promises to rectify the situation.

"The MPs have betrayed us," Mr al Shuraian said, adding that residents planned to intensify their protests if the unprecedented students' strike failed to spur the government into action. Kuwait's parliament has debated the issue several times. Last October, three MPs representing Umm al Haiman said unless some of the factories were shut down, they would force the prime minister to answer questions about the area's problems, but did not follow up with a motion to do so.

The government maintains levels of several air pollutants monitored in the region remain within the maximum levels allowed. This year it closed some plants temporarily and ordered others to abide by environmental regulations. That has not satisfied Umm al Haiman's activists. Khalid al Hajeri, the chairman of the local environmental group Green Line, has said children were particularly badly affected by the pollution. Mr al Hajeri said the local MPs had made "empty threats" and should stand down if they did not fulfil their promises.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, which resulted in the emirate's oilfields being set on fire, damaged the local environment and that of the wider Gulf region, international studies have shown. But air pollution levels in Kuwait have since increased, according to research published last year in the American Journal of Environmental Sciences. A Gallup survey of more than 1 billion people in 153 countries, published last month on Earth Day, April 22, found that 57 per cent of Kuwaitis were highly dissatisfied with air quality in the city or area where they lived.

tcarlisle@thenational.ae