FINES COLLECTED FROM POLLUTERS IN KURDISTAN REGION RARELY USED TO FUND ENVIRONMENTAL EFFORTS: OFFICIALS - NRTtv report
SULAIMANI — In theory, fines levied by the government against polluters in the Kurdistan Region are supposed to fund environmental initiatives and expand inspections to uncover additional violations, but current and former officials at the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Environmental Board say that the money is routinely diverted for other uses.
As a result, those charged by the government with leading environmental protection measures are deprived of dedicated and steady financing streams that are “more than enough to provide support” for the Board’s operations and allow it to expand its activities, former head of the Environmental Board Hallo Mustafa Askari told NRT in an interview.
Instead the money goes directly to the KRG’s Ministry of Finance and Economy, which rarely allocates it back to the Board.
“Our laboratories are not up to date. We need new technologies to inspect factories and cities. We have one air quality monitoring station in Sulaimani and one in Erbil…both of which are out of operation due to broken parts,” Askari said.
“It’s a disaster,” he added.
SETTING UP THE ENVIRONMENTAL FUND
In 2008, the Kurdistan Parliament passed Law Number 8 as a way to enhance the government’s ability to protect the environment. Article 10 of that law created the Environment Fund, with the intent that it would be used to finance environmental initiatives. Two years later, legislators passed Law Number 3 of 2010, creating the Environment Board, in part to oversee the initiatives that the Fund ostensibly supports.
One of the Board’s responsibilities is to inspect factories, refineries, construction sites, and other places that have the potential to damage the environment. If they find a violation, the inspection team will usually issue a warning to fix the issue within ten days. If it is not resolved, the Board can issue fines ranging from 100,000 Iraqi dinars ($84) for minor issues to 10 million Iraqi dinars ($8,400) for more serious ones.
If that fails to deter the polluter, the courts can intervene, imposing a month-long prison sentence on the business owner and a 200 million Iraqi dinar ($168,000) fine.
“In accordance with the law, we have a special fund, the total income from fines of violators goes into [the Environmental] Fund,” current Head of the Environment Board Abdulrahman Sadiq, told NRT through a spokesperson.
“All of that goes to the Ministry of Finance,” Sadiq added.
Askari sees that diversion of funds to the finance ministry as a problem that prevents the Board from living up to its potential.
“If we had the power to spend that money, there would be incentive for the staff to go out and inspect” and bring in additional funding that could again be reinvested into the Board’s work, he argued.
“The power is there. The money is there. But we weren’t able to spend a penny independently,” he said of his time in charge of the Board, saying that whenever he wanted to fund an initiative he had to go to the KRG’s Council of Ministers to ask for funding, a process riddled with bureaucratic hurdles.
“WE DON’T HAVE THE AUTHORITY”
Both Sadiq and Askari declined to provide a specific number for how much money the Board’s inspection work brings into the fund, saying that it varies over time. They also said that the Fund is supposed to receive a portion of what drivers pay to renew their vehicle licenses, which would constitute another fairly steady stream of income.
Pressed for a figure, Askari said only that the income that the Board is supposed to receive would be “more than enough to provide support to all the environmental departments to purchase equipment, train staff, and [meet their] operational needs.”
There is no evidence that the money is expropriated or corruptly used, merely that it goes to purposes other than environmental protection and that its allocation is determined by the KRG’s finance ministry.
“We don’t have the authority to spend that money for greening our Region,” Director of Sulaimani Governorate Directorate of Environment Diar Sheikh Gharib said.
“That authority has been taken back by the Ministry of Finance and Economy, which is not letting us spend it,” he added.
If that changed and the money went back into the Board, Askari argued, it would be able to hire ranks of well-qualified staff to conduct additional inspections.
The effect would be two-fold: the environment would improve because violators would be deterred and punished and the money from fines would allow the Board to further expand its operations into other areas.
Sadiq said that the Board wanted to add environmental subjects into the Ministry of Education’s curricula and launch a clean air initiative. Askari said he also tried to launch a clean air program, along with a recycling system, and establish an in-house media production department to support awareness raising campaigns. Both said that they encountered bureaucratic and financial challenges in trying to launch those schemes.
“If we had the power to spend that money, there would be incentive for staff to go out and inspect,” Askari said.
Gharib agreed, saying that if the Board “had modern technology, a well-trained staff, and [funding], we could collect much more than the money that we’ve collected [so far].”
“It’s a disaster,” Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper and environmental activist Nabil Musa told an NRT reporter while looking out over where the Sulaimani city landfill slopes down to the white-flecked sewage running along the bed of the Tanjaro River just meters away.
During the dry summer and fall, the dark brown liquid running south is mostly untreated sewage, entering the river’s course out of an unfinished water treatment project adjacent to the Darwaza neighborhood. The sewage flows to Darbandikhan and Garmian, where it intermingles with rivers and lakes downstream, contaminating drinking water.
“It’s the sewage marshes,” Musa remarked during an afternoon tour of the Tanjaro.
Beyond the larger infrastructure problems posed by the landfill and the lack of a dedicated sewage system, smaller environmental violations are rife and publicly evident, which could be addressed by the Board.
During the tour, on one bank of the river, a truck was illegally disposing construction waste, while a man started a fire in an unsanctioned dumping ground on the opposite bank.
“I always call up the Environment Board to tell them what is happening, but they say they cannot do anything,” Musa said.
“We have no power,” Askari conceded when asked about the situation in Tanjaro.
“The legislation is very weak and is not being enforced. Technical capacity is low and training for staff it not there,” he said.
“I don’t have much hope unless there is a dedicated budget that can be put back into the agency.”
“It’s a disaster,” Askari repeated.
(NRT Digital Media)