ALI SABAH AL-SALEM, Kuwait Ã¢â‚¬â€ Thousands of students began a two-day strike on Sunday in protest at high pollution levels caused by oil facilities in a remote residential area of southern Kuwait.
“The strike was total today. All 15,000 students stayed at home,” Ahmad al-Shuraian, head of the area’s environmental protection committee, told AFP after addressing a gathering.
The Ali Sabah Al-Salem area, in an oil-rich region some 55 kilometres (35 miles) south of Kuwait City, is surrounded by hundreds of facilities, including Kuwait’s three refineries, and industrial plants.
As students stayed home, about 200 residents gathered outside a main school braving heavy rains to urge the government to take speedy action to resolve local health problems.
“There has been a massive rise in the number of pollution-related diseases among the 45,000 residents of this area,” Shuraian said.
Citing an official report, he said that in 2005 the relatively new area had 1,399 asthma sufferers, compared to just 150 cases in a nearby district with a five-fold population.
“Last year, the number rose to above 8,000 cases, or about 18 percent of the population … The number of respiratory diseases is 19 times higher than the average in other populated areas,” Shuraian said.
He warned of many cases of more serious diseases such as cancer but charged that the government was keeping a lid on the actual figures.
The issue of pollution in the area has been debated several times in the Kuwaiti parliament which has repeatedly urged the Gulf emirate’s government to take action.
The government has acknowledged that pollution is high but said it remained under the maximum level allowed, an issue which has been hotly contested by residents and their supporters.
A government committee in 1994 recommended against building homes in the area, according to Shuraian. The government, however, had ignored the recommendation and built up the area which residents began to use in 2001.
“The problem with this area is that all the oil facilities and 156 chemical and industrial plants, which emit highly toxic gases, lie to the north of the houses and the winds in Kuwait blow mostly from the north,” he said.
In October, three MPs issued a 60-day ultimatum to grill the prime minister unless about 20 chemical plants were closed down.
The government has temporarily closed a few plants and ordered others to abide by environmental regulations.
But Shuraian said nothing had changed on the ground and that “MPs have betrayed us.”
The solution is either to “relocate the area or shut down the plants,” he said, adding that residents planned to step up protests if the unprecedented students’ strike failed to pressure the government to act.
Kuwait, OPEC’s fifth largest producer, says it sits on about 10 percent of global crude reserves and pumps around 2.3 million barrels per day. It has a native population of 1.1 million as well as 2.35 million foreign residents.