x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Residents demand action from Kuwait government over poisoning from local factories

Residents of Ali Sabah al Salem City are campaigning for environmental regulation of nearby factories.

Children were kept home from school for two days this week to highlight the cause.
Children were kept home from school for two days this week to highlight the cause.

KUWAIT CITY // In 2001, when Ahmed al Shrea and his young family moved into the tree-lined, spacious Ali Sabah al Salem City after a 17-year wait for a government plot of land, they were living the Kuwaiti dream - until they noticed a strange smell. Many of the city's other 40,000 residents became concerned by the odour, which they say is reminiscent of burning plastic. And when a fibreglass factory in the nearby West Shuaiba industrial area burned down in 2003, blackening the sky for days, they started to question if the industries were posing a threat to their environment.

Mr al Shrea said when residents approached the companies, many could not prove they were environmentally sound. With five other residents, Mr al Shrea formed the voluntary environmental committee, and for nine years it has lobbied the government to clamp down on factories that they say are causing high rates of respiratory illnesses, skin conditions, premature births and cancer in Umm al Haiman, the city's former name which residents still use.

The governor of Ahmadi, Sheikh Ibrahim al Sabah, acknowledged that the area is suffering from pollution, the state news agency, Kuna, reported last year. He said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had a project to address the problem and "everybody is awaiting its execution". This week, the committee asked local children to stay away from schools for two days to publicise its cause. Despite warnings from the minister of education that it will punish absentees, virtually all of the city's parents kept the area's 15,000 children away from its 18 schools. Around 300 residents began the strike with a demonstration in the seasonal rain.

"This is to give our message to the prime minister," said Mr al Shrea, who is a chemical engineer and the chairman of the committee. "We're trying to save 40,000 people from a slow death." On Monday, teachers wandered their schools' empty corridors. At Abdullah bin Zubair Secondary School, a teacher who asked to remain anonymous as instructors were not allowed to speak to media, said no local children came to school over the two-day period. He said: "I understand why they're doing it. We can feel the pollution here, the air is rank."

Bader al Tamimi, a physical education teacher at Beneder Primary School, said: "We're not taking part in the strike, but it's a good idea. Many of the students have health problems that prevent maybe 20 per cent of them from taking part in sport." Mr al Shrea said he has an official report by the health ministry from 2005 that said 1,399 asthma sufferers live in Umm al Haiman, more than eight times more than the area in second place, Al Sabahiya, which has four times as many people. He said he has unofficial statistics from a source within the ministry in 2009 that indicate the number has increased to more than 8,000.

The committee believes that the prevalent southerly wind blows "80 per cent" of the pollutants from the industrial area into Ali Sabah al Salem City, but the industries argue that effluence from around 160 private sector factories is dwarfed by the huge public sector oil industries - including oil refineries and chemical plants near the Burgan oilfield - that are also nearby. The Environmental Protection Agency monitors the factories and, under pressure from the district's elected representatives last year, they began a round of inspections. In March, they announced the temporary closure of 12 factories.

Abdullah al Nasser, the chairman and managing director of Kuwait Lube Oil Company (KLOC), said his factory was ordered to close for one week, and it took five additional days to shut down and start up the machines, costing the company "tens of thousands" of Kuwaiti dinars. The company takes the toxic substance left over from processes such as vehicle oil changes and re-refines it to produce lubricating oil.

The plant was established 28 years ago, long before most residents were living in the area. Mr al Nasser said the company recycles hazardous materials and has received awards from the EPA, but "it doesn't mean that we are perfect". If the company closed, Kuwait would face a much larger environmental problem, he said. "You can't just look at it from one angle. You have to ensure the growth of the economy without jeopardising the health of the people."

The EPA sometimes makes impossible demands such as in 2004, when it asked the company to use fuel gas, but this is impossible unless a distribution network is in place, he said. The company "voluntarily" switched to kerosene in 2005, which is cleaner than the diesel fuel they were using at the time. Any industry that pollutes the environment, and has not improved after sufficient warning, should be closed, Mr al Nasser said, "provided that the standards are clear". KLOC is currently in negotiations with the EPA.

Local parliamentarians told residents at a rally in October that they would question the prime minister in parliament within two months if the problem was not solved, but the promise never materialised. This week's protest may have cajoled the MPs into action again. One of the MPs, Khalid al Tahous, said on Monday he would file to question the prime minister within two weeks if the government does not cancel the violators' licences.

But Mr al Shrea said he has lost faith in the "lies" of the parliamentarians, who "started ignoring our calls" after the demonstration last year. He believes the government should relocate the residents and compensate them, but with around 84,000 Kuwaitis on the waiting list for a government home, it will be keen to avoid such a radical solution. The committee has more plans for future protests, but Mr al Shrea would not reveal the details.

"I cannot see my children facing the death penalty, I will do anything," he said. @Email:jcalderwood@thenational.ae