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Last Updated:  Friday, 14 March, 2003, 10:51 GMT
Gulf environment faces worse threats
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

If war comes to Iraq, the fate of the environment will probably be low on the list of the combatants' concerns.

Burning well and oil lake   BBC
Victory in a war with Iraq may come at too high a cost to both people and the environment
Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute
Yet damage to land, air, water and wildlife may far outlast the conflict's immediate wounds.

The Gulf region has recovered from some of the worst impacts of the 1991 war.

But many unknowns remain, and the potential for horrendous damage is much greater this time round.

Iraq set on fire about 750 Kuwaiti oil wells as it retreated in 1991. It is 25 times larger than Kuwait, with about 2,000 wells.

Six to eight million barrels of oil from the wells burnt daily, until the last fire was extinguished more than 250 days after the war ended.

Oil, soot, sulphur and acid rain came down as far as 1,900 kilometres (1,200 miles) away, poisoning vegetation and animals, contaminating water, choking people. The fires released nearly half a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

European, Kuwaiti and Saudi scientists from the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD) in Riyadh published a report in 1993.

Running thirsty

Gulf shrimp fisheries, they said, appeared healthy, dugongs and underwater coral reefs were in good shape. The tides and the high temperatures had cleaned up the offshore marine environment.

Onshore, though, it was different - thick deposits of oil and tar coating hundreds of kilometres of Gulf coast between the tide lines and further inland. Some reports said the oil killed at least 30,000 seabirds.

The United Nations Environmental Programme says about 90% of the up to 20,000 square kilometres of marshlands have been lost because of drainage and upstream damming in "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters"

Iraq also deliberately spilt oil directly into the Gulf to foil any attempts at a landing. This affected desalination plants, and it is estimated about 30% of Kuwait's water remains unusable because of the 1991 contamination.

Jonathan Lash is president of the World Resources Institute (WRI), based in Washington DC. He told BBC News Online: "The most remarkable aspect is how quickly the region did recover.

"There are worries about the Gulf, because the water there takes almost two centuries to turn over.

"And land in Kuwait which was used for subsistence agriculture before 1991 still can't be planted.

"But the long-term consequences were less than anyone could have predicted at the time.

"However, there's no guarantee it would be the same this time. Iraq is more densely populated than Kuwait, and 40% of its people are aged under 15.

Radiation fears

"Iraqis depend on the Tigris and the Euphrates for water, which is more valuable in the region than oil. And there seem to be no limits to what they'll do under pressure."

Despite the signs of recovery, concern persists over the aftermath of the 1991 war.

Huge areas were still covered in soot in 2000. More than 300 lakes of oil had spilt from the wells during the war, and some still disfigured the Kuwaiti desert, seeping six metres (20 feet) below the surface.

Cars drive under smoke pall   AP
Darkness at noon: Smoke shrouds Kuwait
Doctors were reporting a higher incidence of asthma, allergies and eye irritation. In Iraq itself, five times as many children were reported born with defects as in 1991.

Many Iraqis - and others - blame the depleted uranium (DU) ammunition used by the US and UK for the problems of their children and of veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome.

Scientists disagree about the ability of DU to cause the horrific problems reported. The World Health Organisation recommends cleaning areas with high concentrations of radioactive particles.

Another Iraqi casualty of 1991 is the Mesopotamian marshlands, drained by President Saddam Hussein after the war.

The marsh people have suffered severely, and several animal and plant species are believed to have become extinct.

Jonathan Lash told BBC News Online: "It's not the environment that should determine whether or not we go to war, but the impact on people and on world peace.

"But we need significant caution. Victory in a war with Iraq may come at too high a cost to both people and the environment."

Iraq's 'devastated' Marsh Arabs
03 Mar 03 |  Middle East
Foes urged to spare Iraq's wildlife
16 Feb 03 |  Science/Nature
World 'needs green Geneva Convention'
10 Feb 03 |  Science/Nature
Pollution legacy lives on in Kuwait
04 Aug 00 |  Middle East

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