x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The wind blows, the coughing starts

Kuwaitis living near an industrial city believe the pollution from factories close to their home is damaging their health.

KUWAIT CITY // About 30km to the south of the capital, not far from one of the world's largest oilfields, an area teeming with factories, chemical plants and oil refineries produces much of the wealth that gives Kuwait one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world. But for many people in Ali Sabah Al Salem, a city just south of the smokestacks and clustered oil tanks, the benefits of industry have come at a high price. Some residents say pollution from the factories has increased the rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses in the area, and pressure has been increasing on the government to do something about it.

"I've lived here for 10 years, and now I'm suffering from cancer," said a 60-year-old resident, Eid Ayad Otaibi, at a shopping district in the heart of Umm al Haiman, the city's former name, which it is still called locally. "A lot of people have cancer here, even young people. We are surrounded by petrol and chemical factories and when the wind blows south, everyone starts coughing. "The factories mostly work at night when no officials are around to watch them and the smell makes it very difficult for us to sleep. Sometimes I hang my ghutra outside at night and in the morning because of the pollution it's black," Mr Otaibi said, pointing to his red and white headdress, which, along with his surname, identifies him as a member of a local tribe.

Mr Otaibi said he does not know if the factories are responsible for his cancer because "maybe it is from Allah", but he believes there could be a link. The tribesman said he has undergone five years for treatment for the disease. Another of Umm al Haiman's 40,000 residents agreed with Mr Otaibi as he leaned out the window of his pickup truck after slowing down when Mt Otaibi's lively gestures had attracted his attention.

"The problem comes at one in the morning and in the weekend. It smells like burning plastic," Salem al Azmi said, while setting fire to a piece of plastic in his lorry to try to re-create the smell. "It's been like this for years." Last year, three members of parliament from the constituency threatened to question the prime minister over the issue of pollution in Umm al Haiman in parliament, but they have not yet filed a motion to do so. At a press conference this week, Khalid al Hajeri, the chairman of Green Line, a local environmental group, criticised the MPs for their "empty threats". He said they should stand down if they do not follow through on their promise.

Mr al Hajeri said "children are dying" in Umm al Haiman because of the pollution. He said he has studies from the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, the government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US military that all point to high levels of pollution in the area. He said this theory is backed up by anecdotal evidence from residents and hospitals. The government is to blame for moving people into the area in the 1990s and failing to force local industry to abide by environmental regulations, Mr al Hajeri said.

"The EPA didn't monitor the area or make research to find out where the problems are. They don't care unless there's a big case in the parliament or the media, and in that case they will only care for two or three months," he said. The EPA declined to comment on the subject. Green Line has suggested tougher implementation of existing standards to resolve the problem, but other environmental groups, such as Kuwaiti Greenpeace, have suggested a more radical approach. It has called on the government to evacuate the entire area, which it said has become uninhabitable.

The EPA has responded to growing pressure by instigating a round of inspections in private sector factories near Umm al Haiman. The state news agency, Kuna, recently reported that the authority "booked" for violations 36 factories out of 57 already inspected, and it will investigate a further 127. Hussain al Kharafi, the chairman of Kuwait Industries Union (KIU), a union that represents private sector interests, said the government is using the privately owned factories as a scapegoat for its own polluters.

"Our factories, in the private sector, are very small comparatively. We don't claim there is no pollution whatsoever; nothing is ideal. But all these factories, small or medium size, have been given approval to establish their plants," Mr Kharafi said. "There are studies that say the government is creating 90 per cent of the pollution. Do you think a carton factory will give more pollution than petrochemicals?" he asked, adding that violations of the rules in the private sector factories can be corrected easily, if the EPA tells them what they are doing wrong.

In Kuwait, the large oil industries are owned by the government. The KIU represents factories from a range of sectors including plastics, food, construction and chemicals. Mr al Kharafi said the government has said it will close 12 factories for periods of less than two weeks, but because the process is not transparent, none of the factories have been informed of their closure. He said to close the factories now would be like "a student going to college and getting a certificate and then someone coming to him later and saying it's not valid".

But some residents of Umm al Haiman, especially those with health conditions, want to see decisive action from the government. Saud Salem al Rashedi suffers from a skin condition that makes his skin "dry and scaly like a fish". He said doctors have told him there is no cure for his condition and the pollution is making it worse. "It's time to move these factories." @Email:jcalderwood@thenational.ae