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Friday, 4 August, 2000, 07:46 GMT 08:46 UK
Pollution legacy lives on in Kuwait
Gathering Station 14
Gathering Station 14: Permanent reminder of damage
By BBC News Online's Andrew North in Kuwait

The oil fires may have been put out and most of the oil spills cleaned up, but Kuwait is still counting the environmental and health costs of Iraq's occupation and the subsequent Gulf War.

Scientists say parts of the desert are still heavily polluted with oil. Off the coast, oil covers large patches of the seabed. Kuwait's coral reefs have yet to recover.

The environmental catastrophe that happened to Kuwait is unique

Dr Badria al Awadi
Doctors have reported a significant increase in patients with heart diseases and cancers - and they say pollution from the war is the most likely cause.

Iraqi troops deliberately spilled oil into the Persian Gulf in 1991, in an effort to foil any attempt by US-led forces to launch a marine assault on the emirate. As they retreated in February 1991, they set fire to hundreds of oil wells, coating the country with thick black smoke.

"The environmental catastrophe that happened to Kuwait is unique," said Dr Badria al-Awadi, a lawyer and the Kuwait representative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). "Even though the air is clean now, still we don't know the full impact of this kind of pollution."

Gathering Station 14
Ruptured tanks and debris remain, a decade on
Dr al-Awadi, who is also involved in Kuwait's claim for compensation from the United Nations for the environmental damage, said health statistics since 1991 were alarming. "A lot of diseases which we never had before, now we are having," she said.

The incidence of cancer is a particular worry which "is much higher than it was before the invasion". Dr al-Awadi is also concerned about growing numbers of people with breathing problems and allergies.

She said she could not say for sure whether oil pollution has caused all these health problems, but work by Kuwaiti research institutes suggests it is highly likely.

Scientists are also looking into the possibility that some of the cancers have been caused by residues from depleted uranium (DU) munitions used by US forces in 1991. Dr al-Awadi says: "The claims that we have taken to the UN have touched on that."

The Iraqi Government has blamed a fourfold increase in leukaemia among Iraqi children since 1991 on DU ammunition fired by American troops.

Contaminated earth

Kuwait is not just concerned about the long-term health impacts.

Dr Mohammed al-Sarawi, chairman of Kuwait's Environment Public Authority, says the country's desert is still badly polluted.

Oil lake
Some 320 oil lakes were created across the desert
"We have about 20 million cubic metres of contaminated soil," he said, which has played havoc with the fragile desert vegetation in these areas.

Dr al-Sarawi says the marine environment - particularly its coral reefs - has still not recovered from the estimated eight million barrels of oil the Iraqis pumped into the Gulf from Kuwait's oil terminals.

However, Kuwait can also point to several successes in cleaning up after the war. The burning oil wells were put out within six months of Kuwait's liberation.

The total cost of firefighting and then repairing the wells has been put at $12bn, however.

Apocalyptic scenes

Less publicised, but a greater challenge was the task of cleaning up around 320 "oil lakes" in the desert.

Many of the oil wells detonated by Iraqi soldiers did not catch fire, but simply spewed their contents across the desert, creating these lakes.

The Kuwaiti Petroleum Corporation says these lakes covered an estimated 50 square kilometres and amounted to around 60 million barrels of oil.

Oil lake, deserted tank
A handful of oil lakes remain in the Burgan oil field
By 1995, the Kuwaiti authorities had only managed to clear around half the lakes. But today, just a handful remain.

The magic weapon, says Dr al-Sarawi, was a special type of bacteria "which degrades the oil". The oily sludge it produces has been used as compost by some Kuwaiti farmers.

BBC News Online saw two of the remaining oil lakes in the Burgan oil field, to the south of Kuwait City.

With a destroyed Iraqi tank nearby, it is an apocalyptic scene and brings back memories of February 1991.

Even before you approach the lakes, you smell the oil, baking in temperatures of more than 50C.

Just a few kilometres away in the Ahmadi field is the shattered remains of Gathering Station 14, the collection point for the output of several oil wells.

Ruptured tanks and mangled pipes are scattered across a large area and it serves as a permanent reminder of one of the world┐s worst ever environmental disasters.

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