The Multinational Monitor


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A Silent Spring in the Persian Gulf

by James Ridgeway

The environment is always a big loser in wartime, and it will be years before the full effect of the Gulf War is known, but even by February it was clear that it had seriously polluted the Persian Gulf and threatened the delicate ecosystems of the desert area as well as the atmosphere of the earth's Northern hemisphere.

The United Nations' Environment Program (UNEP) points out that the Persian Gulf "is regarded as having one of the most fragile and endangered ecosystems" anywhere in the world, and in a speech before the UN Second World Climate Conference in November 1990, Jordan's King Hussein warned that "a war in the Gulf would not only result in devastating human death and injury, tremendous economic loss and prolonged political confrontation between Orient and Occident, it could also lead to an environmental catastrophe" that would be "swift, severe and devastating."

Oil pollution

Iraq's Persian Gulf neighbors were all well aware of this danger because they had seen similar catastrophes in earlier conflicts. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq blew up several Iranian drilling platforms, causing the Nowruz oil spill, which lasted for nearly eight months and poured more than 500,000 barrels of heavy crude into the gulf, three times as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. It killed wild animals--birds, turtles, sea snakes, dolphins and dugongs, which look like Florida manatees. The spill spread across the Gulf and disrupted coastal systems.

Early in this war, the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia announced that, apparently in an effort to forestall an allied amphibious invasion, Saddam Hussein's forces in Kuwait had pumped oil from land-based storage tanks and heavily laden tankers into the Gulf. The oil soon created a slick that reports said would end up being many times the size of that caused by the Valdez.

Initial reports indicated the Persian Gulf spill amounted to at least 294 million gallons compared to 11 million gallons for Exxon Valdez and 68 million gallons for Amoco Cadiz, which split open in March, 1978 off the Brittany coast. As the war progressed, the size of the oil spill in the Gulf was downgraded to 24-60 million gallons. About a third of this total was caused by several smaller spills resulting from allied bombing raids. (The world's single largest oil spill occurred in 1979 when a well dumped 184 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.)

Slowly drifting down the Gulf, this winter's spill promises to gum up both the desalination works which provide potable water to Saudi Arabia and the nation's power plants. A late February report from the UNEP estimated the spill was 125 kilometers long and 5 to 25 kilometers wide.

According to David Ross, a geologist who studied and mapped the gulf in 1972, oil may remain trapped in the Persian Gulf for a long time since it will get bottled up at the Strait of Hormuz. The area is not like Alaska's Prince William Sound, which gets a high rate of exchange with the ocean and is open to rough stormy waters. The tides in Alaska can be huge, and there is a steady flow of fresh water into the ocean--all of which helps dissipate the oil. The Persian Gulf has none of these characteristics. It is bordered on all sides by desert, has little inflow of fresh water and rapid evaporation of surface water--adding up, all in all, in Ross's words, to a "very stressed environment." In Alaska, after a delay, people and equipment were thrown into the clean-up effort. In the Gulf, all energies have been concentrated on war, with roads, equipment, airfields, etc., all straining to meet the demands of the air and ground wars.

The Persian Gulf has no sea otters or bald eagles, but it does have a varied indigenous sea-life. The dugongs dwell near Bahrain and Qatar, where the oil is apt to get trapped. The Gulf has the second largest population of dugongs in the world, after Australia. The Nowruz spill killed 400 sea turtles in a few months, and marine ecologists who work in the Gulf expect this to be repeated. Oyster beds are also likely to be damaged. The Gulf fisheries which are likely to be damaged are not huge, but they are important locally, and, in the case of shrimp, are just beginning to develop international markets. The evolution of the Persian Gulf into an international fishing area promises to be retarded if not altogether halted by oil spills and toxic releases into the Gulf.

As the war began, oil wells in Kuwait were set afire, probably as the result of deliberate efforts by Saddam Hussein and because of allied bombing. Just before the ground war began in late February, Iraq set fire to almost all of Kuwait's approximately 1,000 oil wells, according to U.S. government reports. Some estimate the wells could burn for a year before the fires are extinguished.

The toll from the burning oil could be very high. Some experts fear that the accumulated smoke from oil-well fires could have effects similar to the one that occurred in the northwestern United States during the summer of 1987, when smoke from forest fires blanketed an enormous area, filtering out sunlight and reducing surface temperatures as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Dr. John Cox, a British chemical and environmental engineer who worked in Kuwait, has predicted that with the nation's approximately 1,000 oil fields ablaze, the smoke which would waft upwards might disrupt local and regional climatic patterns, create an equatorial ozone hole and conceivably disrupt the Asian monsoons, leading to crop failures on the subcontinent that would affect more than one billion people. Even Pentagon planners who doubt such dire predictions agree the fires could have a serious impact on local and regional weather patterns. The initial impacts have already been seen in Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey, where wind has blown black smoke that blocked out the sun and made entire days seem like dusk.

Bombing a land into submission

In addition to pollution in the ocean and the air, air strikes against Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological warfare factories and munitions could cause toxic leakages into Iraq's groundwater supplies. The chemical complex located near the holy Shiite city of Samarra, 45 miles northwest of Baghdad on the Tigris, manufactures a reported 200 tons of mustard gas a month. Large chemical storage areas are located there as well. The chemical complex near Samarra also produces 48 tons of tabun, a gas which disrupts the human nervous system that regulates blood vessels. Iraq also manufactures other more potent nerve gases called Sarin and phosgene. Tabun, sarin and phosgene will disperse when released. They are highly toxic, but will not persist in the environment. Mustard gas, which causes burns and leads to cancer, is extremely persistent, however; people are still finding patches of active mustard gas in Ethiopia dropped by the Italians before World War II. In addition, Iraq was believed to possess stocks of biological agents including anthrax and botulism. Their dispersal would have horrendous implications.

The allied destruction of Iraq's two small nuclear reactors could have released small amounts of radioactivity, and more significantly might have led to dispersal of plutonium that Iraq was amassing for nuclear bombs.

The bombing of Iraq's civilian infrastructure will also have severe repercussions. As the war progressed, the United States broadened the bombing of cities such as Baghdad and Basra to include "dual use" targets, such as public transportation, which are used by both civilians and military. So what had begun as bombing raids on military concentrations, electrical plants and communications centers (including post offices), came to include sewers, bridges and highways.

The likely result will be the outbreak of disease. Even before the war began economic sanctions had begun to hurt the medical systems in Iraq. The Iraqis are particularly susceptible to a breakdown in medical services, since half the population of the country is under 15 years old, and anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of those are youngsters under five years old. By winter, polio had reappeared. In the wake of the first few weeks of bombing, international relief officials prepared for epidemics caused by lack of electricity and water, and breakage of the sewer lines.

Long-term effects

Many of the environmental effects of the war could take a long time to appear, and unlike the catastrophic results of an oil spill, may occur in subtle and little-noticed ways. For example, fishing and agriculture may suffer for years to come as a result of the war. Contamination of the Tigris and Euphrates, which supply Iraq with 80 percent of its water, by radioactive materials and chemical agents, and the destruction of war would severely damage the country's farming potential. Although Iraq depends on only one product, oil, for its export earnings, the future viability of the country lies in agriculture, most of which has long been concentrated in the oblong strip of arable land where the two rivers converge on the Persian Gulf.

Already much of Africa is gripped in continuing famine, with masses of people unable to grow their own food and turning into environmental refugees. The war in the Persian Gulf threatens to turn that environmentally fragile region into another wasteland.

James Ridgeway is a columnist for the Village Voice and the author of Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads and the Rise of a New White Culture.

Trashing the Saudi Arabian Desert

In fall 1990, the U.S. military drove full-speed into the Persian Gulf desert, first ostensibly to keep Saddam Hussein from invading Saudi Arabia; and then to prepare for a full-scale attack against Iraq. The outbreak of war has made it very likely that the United States will establish permanent military bases in the Persian Gulf. Very little attention has been paid to the ecological consequences of this potentially permanent basing of huge numbers of troops and equipment in the region. However, there is a growing body of information which suggests it could cause a series of environmental problems, induding production of military toxic waste, disruption and destruction of desert ecosystems and potentially damaging impacts on Middle Eastern agriculture and nomadic grazing activities.

Toxic troops

U.S. military bases and activities abroad typically do not follow environmental regulations whether promulgated by the United States or by the host nation. In fact, the Pentagon is in blatant violation of a 1978 Presidential Order that mandates the development of a program and budget for deaning up overseas bases. General Accounting Office reports on the environmental damage caused by U.S. military bases abroad are classified and little concrete information on the subject exists. Enough is known, however, about the toxic waste produced at U.S. bases in Western Europe for experts to recognize that it presents a serious problem. Military installations produce a deadly soup of poisons and carcinogens that includes paints, solvents, fuels, lubricants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, cyanides, phenols, acids alkalies and radioactive wastes. These contaminants are very difficult to dispose of and often cause problems for the communities near the bases.

The generation of toxic waste in Saudi Arabia's desert environment promises, in some respects, to be greater than it would be in other areas of the world. According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, blistering heat and gritty sand in the Saudi desert requires the use of heavyweight oil and other special lubricants on machinery, magnifying maintenance "manifold" and thus generating greater quantities of toxic waste.

The CRS report also notes that "sanitation problems can quickly become unmanageable under the hot sun, unless proper preventative measures are enforced." The New York weekly, The Village Voice, estimates that the U.S. forces in the Gulf are "producing a minimum of between 10 and 12 million gallons of sewage a day," along with more than 20,000 tons of garbage a month. This solid and sewage waste, according to the Pentagon, is "by agreement the responsibility of the host country." However, it is doubtful that the Saudis have the facilities to accommodate waste produced by a military city the size of Miami, and the Pentagon will not confirm whether it has signed a memorandum of environmental under-standing (a frequent practice) with its host.

Water use: draining Saudi Arabia

Personal water consumption for each U.S. soldier in Saudi Arabia, including drinking, cooking, bathing and laundry is roughly 11 gallons per day. Vehicles use 10 to 12 gallons more daily. In order to quench its forces' thirst, the U.S. military has reportedly dug new wells 1,500 feet deep to reach ground-water. It is drawing water from underground aquifers that make up 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's water sources. It has also appropriated the water produced by 28 of Saudi Arabia's29 desalination plants. Added pressure by the U.S. military on the country's scarce, non-renewable water resources is increasing the rate of depletion. It has the potential to destabilize the country's internal economy, most directly affect ing the least well-off Saudis and the hundreds of thousands of impoverished foreign agricultural workers in the country. Access to safe drinking water for Saudi Arabia's rural population is already on the decline, having dropped from 87 percent of the population in 1980 to 68 percent in 1985. The U.S. presence promises to exacerbate the problem.

The water issue becomes all the more critical in a chemical warfare scenario. According to CRS, "the use of persistent agents by either side ... could be disastrous, because it takes about 200,000 gallons of wash water to decontaminate one division." It is not clear where such water resources would come from, or if they would even be available in certain parts of the Saudi desert.

Desert Storm's dust storms

The war and the potential for a long-term U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia pose serious threats to the region's desert ecosystems, to the nomads who live there and to Middle Eastern agriculture. While the desert of Saudi Arabia may seem a barren wasteland, it is, like the rest of the Middle East and many other desert ecosystems, home to a wildlife population of small mammals, including jackals, hares and sandcats, reptiles and birds. Its soils are held in place by a living crust of microorganisms, ephemeral plants, salt, silt and sand.

The disruption of the barren deserts and desert steppe during the war could potentially trigger massive dust storms and dust clouds. According to the English biologist J. L. Cloudsley-Thompson, during the desert campaigns of World War II, large areas were disturbed, "giving rise to dust storms when the wind velocity was only half that usually needed to cause them." As a result, the number of storms increased ten-fold. Dust storms in Libya in 1941 became so thick that all military movement ceased for three days. Thompson and other desert scientists note that it takes generations for desert ecosystems to recover from such disruptions. Studies of deserts in Africa and India have found that disruption and dust storms can reinforce dry spells and droughts by interfering with rainfall. Dust storms and drought would adversely affect agriculture in Saudi Arabia and other more fertile areas of the region, devastating local economies and deepening the hunger of the Middle East's poor.

This article is excerpted from "War in the Gulf: An Environmental Prospective," written by Joshua Karliner, China Brotsky, Tom Lent and Nancy Netherland. It is available for $1.50 from the Political Ecology Group, 519 Castro St., Box 111, San Francisco, CA 94114

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