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Mideast War Could Send Environment Up In Smoke

by Meena Janardhan

Depleted Uranium Bombs Still Pose Danger in Kosovo (Nov 2000)
(IPS) DUBAI -- It took Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces just a few days to scorch 732 Kuwaiti oil fields in 1991, unleashing an environmental catastrophe. The fires cost Kuwait 3 percent of its oil reserves and tens of billions of dollars.

A U.S. attack on Iraq could result in a far worse environmental disaster, even as some of the impact from the 1991 Gulf War is still being felt today.

But many are worried by the strict official silence so far on what the impact of an imminent, potentially wider, conflict in the Gulf could be.

Among others, there is fear that a U.S.-led attack against Iraq could force a retreating Saddam to adopt a "scorched earth" policy and set fire to about 1,000 oil wells in Iraq.

But in a just-released interview with the U.S.-based CBS News, Saddam Hussein said he would do no such thing in the event of war. "Iraq does not burn its wealth and it does not destroy its dams," he said, adding that he hoped that these would be not be destroyed by those who attack the country.

According to Inad Khairallah of the Dar Al Khaleej Research Center in Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the amount of ammunition used by the allied forces in the 1991 Gulf War was more than the cumulative firepower used in World War I and II.

He said, "This certainly has had an impact on the environment. One indication is the rise in winter temperature in the Gulf countries. Though many attribute it to global warming, there has been a perceptible change in the temperature in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War in 1990-91."

He also said that war could undercut the region's decades of work to make the region more habitable for its people. "The region has struggled to create oases out of the desert. Some of the countries here are greener than those that have ideal weather conditions," Khairallah added. "All the hard work and commitment to the environment will be wiped out in a flash in case of a war."

In 1991, around six million barrels of oil a day -- or 10 percent of the world's daily oil consumption -- went up in smoke, sending 500 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Deposits of oil, soot, sulphur and other black acids were found in samples taken from farms up to 2,000 kilometers away in Iran.

The Iraqis also dumped about eight million barrels of oil into the Indian Ocean. Some 60 million barrels of oil were then dumped onto Kuwaiti sands, forming lakes as deep as swimming pools in places. Thirteen years on, they are still seeping into the desert soil.

Now, the sites in Iraq that have been associated by the United States and Britain as being involved in the production of biological and chemical weapons will certainly be early targets for air strikes.

Targeting these and other industrial and military sites in a conflict is likely to lead to acute chemical pollution. Of particular concern are the depleted uranium (DU) projectiles that create fragments and dust, which release uranium oxide into the air and lead to cancer.

"Hanging in the air, invading the soil, polluting the water supply, and ending up in the systems of infants, this menacing poison cannot be stopped. It cannot even be located," according to Habiba Al Marashi, chairwoman of the Emirates Environmental Group in Dubai, another of the emirates.

DU is a pollutant that does not respect boundaries or borders, she said. "Its presence is a threat to both the local environment where it has been used, and the areas surrounding it. We know that DU is profoundly present in Iraq as a result of the weapons used during the 1991 war."

Thousands of hectares of Iraqi land and its freshwater sources could get contaminated.. Decontaminating just 200 hectares at a U.S. Army base recently was said to have cost four to five billion U.S. dollars.

"Lets not forget the threat to biodiversity. The 1991 oil slick killed 25,000 birds, coating the shoreline with a thick black film that destroyed the fragile marine ecosystem. The oil that did not burn and formed giant black puddles, destroying farmland for generations," Khairallah added.

One of the oldest and richest ecosystems in the world is found in Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet to form the 'Fertile Crescent'. Already, more than 40 species of aquatic birds, crustaceans and mammals unique to the region are considered extinct.

Iraqi wetlands support at least seven threatened species of mammals and attract about 60 species of waterfowl and nine species of birds of prey during winter.

Prabha Murali, a science teacher in a Dubai school, is particularly worried about air pollution. "The 1991 fires produced a cloud of darkness and pollution in Kuwait. The region was covered by an oily film from these black clouds, blocking sunlight for months. Air temperature decreased by about 10 degrees, and sea temperature by several more."

Other environmental effects of the 1991 war included the destruction of sewage treatment plants, resulting in the discharge of over 50,000 cubic meters of raw sewage everyday into Kuwait Bay.

It cost Kuwait and the anti-Iraq coalition partners at the time over $20 billion to restore oil infrastructure that was destroyed by Saddam.

Said Murali: "The costs of environmental damage after the 1991 war were estimated at $40 billion. This time, it could double or even triple. These are just the green costs of war. One shudders to imagine what the human costs would be."

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Albion Monitor February 28, 2003 (

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