Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- Prince Turki Bin Nasser Bin-Abdulaziz, chairman of the Saudi Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority, has revealed that the amount of compensations demanded by Saudi Arabia as a result of the environmental pollution to which it was exposed during the second Gulf war in the beginning of the 1990’s is some 28 billion dollars. Prince Turki pointed out that under the Saudi shores there still were more than 8 million cubic meters of sand polluted with visible oil, whose effects had extended to large numbers of sea creatures, and that the damage would continue for some 100 years if it were not treated. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Prince Turki pointed out that there was coordination with the education organizations of the country to approve education curricula in the various stages of education to raise the level of environmental awareness.
Prince Turki added that the gathering of the major companies interested in environment into a single group would help in utilizing all kinds of waste in various resources in various fields, including generating electricity, water, and fertilizers. Moreover, there would be export of Saudi waste, after recycling it, to other countries that would utilize it in various industries.
Prince Turki Bin-Nasser talked with great transparency about important aspects of the environment, including the fear of the presence in Northern Saudi Arabia of diseases linked to the leakage from close-by nuclear reactors. The following is the text of the interview:
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In April 2003 you undertook a tour of Eastern Saudi Arabia to assess the magnitude of the environmental damage caused by the Gulf war. Since then, what are the measures that have been implemented in this respect at the environmental level?
(Prince Turki) Yes, this is true. At that period, the general presidency of Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority carried out surveys and studies of environmental monitoring and assessment of the areas damaged by the Gulf war of 1991. These included environmental studies of the coastal areas of the Gulf, the land of the northeastern areas of the Kingdom, and the environmental impact on public health. Following the emergence of the results of these studies, the authority’s presidency was honored by a visit by the crown prince, deputy prime minister, minister of defense and aviation, and inspector general, who carried out an inspection tour of these results, and the extent of the damage inflicted upon the Saudi environment as a result of the second Gulf war. The crown prince, God preserve him, instructed us to work to cleanse and treat the harmed areas through the compensation program, together with the United Nations. Indeed the results and pleadings have already been submitted to the UN compensation commission and a number of environment cleansing, treatment, and rehabilitation programs. By virtue of being the authority representing the Kingdom in this field, the general presidency of Environment Monitoring and Protection is doing its utmost with the UN compensation commission to start implementing the treatment program as soon as possible. We hope that, God willing, within three years we will have treated the harmed vegetation, and rehabilitated it.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the amount of compensation for the harm inflicted upon Saudi Arabia? Is there a specific or approximate figure of the amount of these compensations?
(Prince Turki) The environmental damage inflicted upon the Kingdom is huge. It happened as a result of burning hundreds of oil wells, and dumping millions of crude oil barrels in the waters of the Arabian Gulf. This led to the pollution of our shores, in a way that made it the worst case of pollution witnessed in the world. In the shadow of this pollution of our natural resources, ecological system, and public health the monitoring and assessment studies undertaken by Saudi Arabia have proved that there still are more than 8 million cubic meters of sand polluted with visible oil, whose impact has extended to large numbers of sea creatures. It is expected that the impact of this pollution will continue for more than 100 years unless it is treated. The losses suffered by the Kingdom as a result of this pollution are estimated at more than 28 billion dollars. The approved compensations allocated so far to the Kingdom will go for the treatment and rehabilitation of the areas that are environmentally most deteriorated. Here, I would like to point out the international resolutions adopted in this respect, which are represented by the compensations commission that stemmed from the United Nations according to the UN Security Council resolution, and which is supported by a number of UN resolutions represented by the governing council of this commission. These resolutions stress that the environment should not be used as a means of war. These resolutions embody the international will to deter anyone who thinks of harming the environment.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) With regard to your participation, on what does the national program to get rid of the waste of healthcare rely? Is there a clear and specific mechanism through which the effectiveness of this program could be assessed?
(Prince Turki) It is well known that the aim of building hospitals and healthcare centers is to protect from disease and treat the people. However, the generated medical waste could generate other diseases, and affect the surrounding environment. Therefore, the Health Ministry and other health sectors have opted to leave the job of getting rid of the healthcare waste to investment institutions whose licenses are granted by the general presidency of the Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority. These institutions transport and treat the medical waste in environmentally appropriate ways using the best technology. This way, the health sectors unburden themselves from the mission of getting rid of medical waste, and give the private sector investment opportunities that achieve social, health, environmental and economic benefits. It is no secret that the Kingdom has a leading role in this field. Saudi Arabia has adopted systems sufficient for the management of such types of dangerous waste; the articles of the general system for environment specify limiting the growth of waste and its random dumping, and encourage the private sector to invest in this field. Perhaps the interest of the presidency in this aspect is strengthened by the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ approval of the unified system of management of the dangerous healthcare waste in the GCC countries. As for the adherence of the hospitals to the instructions of treating the medical waste, I would like to point out the role played by the Health Ministry, and the other health sectors belonging to other government authorities, by obliging these hospitals to engage contractors, who specialize in getting rid of medical waste, and who are licensed by the general presidency of Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority; and also by linking some medical licenses to having contracts to get rid of medical waste. The health sectors, in coordination with the general presidency of the Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority, discover the violations and issue the appropriate penalty to the hospitals that do not adhere to the environmental systems.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the volume of the medical waste, the ways of getting rid of it, and the alternative solutions to utilize it?
(Prince Turki) By God, this is a major problem. Now, the major companies concerned with transporting and dealing with healthcare waste, with preventing the risks of infection, and also with oil and domestic waste have gathered together. They agreed the announcement made at the beginning of March this year to establish an environmental company with a capital of 2 billion riyals (533.3 million dollars) to gather all this extensive but fragmented expertise in a single entity. This entity, with its financial power, will be able to establish processing industries using the waste, protect the environment, support the environmental awareness work, and get rid of the dangerous waste. We have invited the rest of the companies operating in the Kingdom to join us in order to have a huge international company in this field.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) With regard to the burial sites for the waste, how many sites do we have in Saudi Arabia? How dangerous are these sites, and how can we deal with this danger?
(Prince Turki) The burial sites are various and different. The establishment of the company will allow the treatment and export of this waste, because there are countries that manufacture things from this waste. As for the dangers, the medical waste is the most dangerous. This is the duty of the company, but it is performing it now through various companies; however, when they gather in a bloc, we hope that the bloc will begin where the others have ended. The existence of new factories and modern technology in getting rid of any waste, whether it is dangerous or not, and the use of technology in recycling this waste will lead to generating electricity from domestic waste, and producing useable water and fertilizers from sewage. There are many economic products that will benefit the Saudi economy, and which will be produced through recycling and industrial use; this is what we hope for from this company and from other companies.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In 2003, the general presidency of the Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority signed a contract to monitor nuclear radiation. What stage has the project reached, and is the information public or secret?
(Prince Turki) The current project consists of 13 stations to monitor gamma rays, which have been installed at the main airports of the Kingdom. The data of these stations are linked to the date provided by the monitoring stations of the presidency, which are relayed every hour. All the data are collected at the presidency, where the experts analyze them, and prepare a daily report for every one of the 13 stations. Since these stations became operational three years ago, no measurement above the normal level of radiation has been recorded. We, in the general presidency of the Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority, have links of cooperation in this field with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. In fact our stations complement the stations established by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. Here, I would like to point out that the presidency can monitor the radiations in the higher strata of the atmosphere through eight stations it supervises, which operate at the main airports of the Kingdom. Moreover, the presidency owns a mobile radiation-monitoring station that monitors radioactive pollution in case of, God forbid, a nuclear accident.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the conflicting rumors about the presence of diseases in northern Saudi Arabia that are linked to radiation sources? What is your opinion of this?
(Prince Turki) Undoubtedly there is no pollution in the north of the Kingdom. There are two natural sources of radiation, and they are not manmade. We and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology have the ability to detect completely anything nuclear, but the majority of the radiation around us is natural. The detection centers in the Kingdom are researching in two directions, the natural radiation that is being studied and attempts are made to overcome it, and the manmade nuclear radiation of which we have found no traces so far. There are apprehensions as a result of the existence of the Israeli nuclear reactor, and also of Iran’s pursuit of the same thing; this is the danger up to which we would like always to be able to face.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are more than 2 million tons of smoke and dust resulting from the cement factories produced in the country. What are the moves of the general presidency to limit this pollution?
(Prince Turki) We understand the dangers imposed by these factories if they do not adhere to the environmental criteria and measures specified in the general system of environment. The environmental inspection plan currently applied by the presidency includes these factories. The factories have been assessed, and the fact is that there is a response by a considerable number of these factories in their adherence to the work to resolve the problem of the unhealthy emissions they produce; this issue will be followed up well. I believe that non-adherence makes such factories liable to deterrent and sufficient penalties. Personally, I am optimistic about the great role of these factories in implementing the environmental laws because of their commitment to the health of the citizen.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Last year the board of the Saudi Society for the Environment was elected. In your capacity as the chairman of the board of director of the Society, what is the role played by it in limiting the environmental chaos in more than one field in the country?
(Prince Turki) Let me tell you that all over the world in many cases the activities of the civil society are relied upon to serve the environment and monitor the environmental activities that diversify and vary across the society. The Saudi Society for the Environment, through the planned future stages, will establish branches across many Saudi governorates and regions to perform their duties as guiding authorities that contribute to raising the levels of awareness and environmental culture in the Saudi society they represent. At the same time the society and its branches will act as an eye monitoring any environmental violations that – God forbid – could cause any damage primarily to man, be it health or financial damage, or cause a negative effect on the environment or one of its constituents or resources. The Saudi Society for the Environment is expected to participate effectively in monitoring the environment and in supporting the official channels that pursue the implementation of the general system for the environment in the Kingdom. The aim is to give the citizen and resident a proper health environment that enables them to perform their role in building the society, which is the aim for which, God willing, we aspire.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Friends of the Environment Society is affiliated to the Ministry of Social Affairs, and not to the general presidency of Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority; does this hinder your efforts?
(Prince Turki) On the contrary, the vision is the same, and the voluntary environmental work will always be helpful to the general presidency in its communication with the people and in increasing the awareness of the new generations. There is interest at the Ministry of Education and other ministries to include the subject of environment within the education stages, an issue that will lead to a qualitative transformation in the environmental work.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How far has the project of the environment curriculum reached?
(Prince Turki) The Ministry of Education has selected a company, and the company is working on the selection of the curricula. God willing, we will see the results soon.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Jeddah is facing grave environmental danger, whether in its infrastructure on its coast, and even in the air polluters. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel with regard to the imminent danger about which various environmental reports talked? Are there a change in, and a treatment of the visible environmental disorder?
(Prince Turki) The environmental issues in Jeddah are the result of accumulations over long periods of time. The previous rescue attempts have not been successful because on the one hand attention was not paid early enough, and on the other hand the radical solutions were not available. I believe that now the situation is much better than it was before. We can see tangible moves by the authorities concerned, whether in the marine aspects, or in the infrastructure problems. I can say that the upcoming years will witness these efforts, and the population of Jeddah will feel their effect. We at the presidency stand by these authorities continuously, give them consultations, and participate in the solutions through permanent committees that meet always, and give studies and consultations that help in limiting the accumulation of these problems. Also there are permanent committees, which the presidency establishes with the government authorities; for instance there is the joint government committee for studying the situation of the Jeddah beaches. Also, I would let you know that the presidency currently is carrying out an environmental assessment study of the Saudi land and sea. Parts of this study a plan to manage the coastal areas. Already, we have completed the study of the Jazan region, we are about to start work in the Asir region, and the next stage will be the Mecca region. This plan is concerned with drawing up the environmental foundations and basics, after that work begins in these coastal areas in order not to harm the environment, and in order to preserve the environmental resources.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The popular role in serving the environmental issues still is below the aspired for level. Are there steps to increase public awareness in parallel with the practical work you intend to carry out, whether these steps are planned by the general presidency of the Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority or by the Saudi Society for the Environment?
(Prince Turki) I agree with you on the first part, because the popular role still is below the aspired for level. However, this does not mean that it does not exist, because there are many activities and campaigns managed, financed, and carried out by many civil society institutions. Many of these activities and campaigns are of high standard of planning and quality, and they leave a good impression on the participating citizens and residents, a matter that increases the positive tendencies toward protecting the environment. Many of the cleansing campaigns, whether the land or sea cleansing ones, have come out in a good, even honorable form. This indicates the existence of popular participation that is by no means less than the popular participation in any other country. On this point I do not agree with you, because the popular participation in such campaigns is good; it matches, and sometimes even exceeds all expectations. As for the fact that the numbers of activists, and also of the campaigns, are small, I agree with you on this. This is due primarily to the degree of awareness of those responsible for these activists. The society still needs to spread the culture of the environmental voluntary work. As for the awareness programs, there are ambitious programs for environmental and monitoring awareness that will be launched, God willing, this year in an intensive way by the general presidency of the Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority. Indeed we have started to prepare this work. The launching will be in parallel with the activities carried out in this field by many government institutions, such as the Education ministry, and by the civil society institutions. The participation in these activities of both the government sector and the private sector could have good effects, because as we all know the protection and preservation of the environment is not restricted to a specific side and not to others, because it is a collective work in which all sectors of society participate.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think that it is time to establish a radio station specialized in environment issues, but that operates in a news form to help the people know all the new developments, especially after the launching of the Bi’aty (My Environment) satellite channel?
(Prince Turki) There is no disagreement on the role of the media, because it is the main factor in underscoring any action we want recognized. We are very keen to find larger channels of communication that would raise the standard of the environmental awareness, and introduce the environment in a style that guarantees its preservation and dealing with it in the required way. I think that environment today is less lucky in the media; its treatment in the media has not reached the required level, and superficiality and lack of specialization are still the more prevailing image of the environment in the media, especially the Arab media in all its forms. This is despite the fact that I see some attempts by some written media organs to present pages specializing in the environment; these are efforts for which we are grateful, we support, and we hope that such thinking would spread in all media organs. If there is any wish to establish media channels – be they radio stations, satellite channels, or newspapers – we in the general presidency of the Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority will be the first to support it and to give it all we could of help and advice. This has been shown clearly when Bi’aty channel asked us to be a source of consultations and scientific reference, and we did not hesitate to do so.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) With regard to the powers given to you to implement the environmental inspection program on the factories, do you find these powers sufficient to limit the various factors of pollution? What are the most prominent results the presidency extracted from the preliminary questionnaire distributed to the factories?
(Prince Turki) I think that these powers are granted to me; there is a general system approved by the Council of Ministers, namely the General System for the Environment. This system includes regulations, laws, penalties, and has important statutes. Therefore, when we talk about the environmental inspection program, for which the presidency works, we do so because it is part of our interest in implementing the system and introducing it to these sides. The general presidency of the Environment Monitoring and Protection Authority has drawn up a plan for environmental inspection. The plan started by sending questionnaires to these installations and factories, and took into consideration the industrial cities in the regions of the Kingdom, and hence classified these installations according to their type of activities, and inserted them into the database at the department of environmental inspection. Now, we are studying the possibility of conducting this survey every five years in order to keep pace with the fast economic development. Here, I would like to explain that the general system includes measures through which a suitable fine could be imposed, the necessary promise could be pledged, and also could close down the installation if it did not adhere to using the suitable technology to limit the environmental pollution. Also the benefits we got from the (environmental inspection) questionnaire were within the framework of the fruitful cooperation established between the presidency and the authorities concerned, such as the Commerce and Industry Ministry and the chambers of commerce. The questionnaire led to the establishment of an important database for these factories and installations in the aspects related to the environment. We will benefit from this database in the upcoming inspection programs, and it will facilitate the environmental assessment process for these installations and factories.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In your capacity as the chairman of the executive bureau of the Arab ministers responsible for the environment affairs, what are your future activities within this framework?
(Prince Turki) There are committees working at the executive bureau, there are postponed subjects, but always the issues of the environment are active ones. Following the Islamic conference that was held in Jeddah last year, we established an executive bureau for the Islamic countries in order to coordinate and operate at both the Arab and Islamic levels before the international conferences in order to come up with a united stance toward the international and regional issues.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In your capacity as number one in the field of environment in Saudi Arabia, what do you think of the issue of “politicizing” the environment? Is this in the interest of consolidating the environmental reforms, or do you see this as a hindrance in the way of coming up with quick results that help rescuing the earth?
(Prince Turki) The hindrances are the individuals themselves. Our role is to develop the social awareness of all the civilian and governmental institutions so that the people will stand in solidarity with their environment, because this solidarity is the responsibility and duty of every individual. The issue of the environment is an international issue that is linked to the sustainability of life.