MARCH 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 3
T H E P R I C E O F W A R
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."
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.
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.