Torching The Earth
issue 236 - October 1992
Torching the Earth
Blazing oil, choking smoke, chemical cocktails - Saddam Hussein got the blame for
all of it. But who were the real environmental villains? Joni Seager investigates.
The Western media were in no doubt about it. Saddam Hussein was an environmental maniac. His readiness to blackmail the more scrupulous Coalition with threats to ignite the Kuwaiti oil wells, and deliberately to pollute the Gulf, fitted well with the demonized propaganda image of him. But look a little closer and you find that the similarities between the Iraqi 'bad guys' and the Coalition 'good guys' are more striking than the differences.
The Coalition went to great lengths to conceal its own dismal record. When, on 24 January 1991, Baghdad Radio announced that the US-led forces had bombed two oil tankers in Kuwait harbour, releasing large quantities of oil, the US military was quick to dismiss these claims as entirely false.
Two days later they announced that Iraqi forces had opened the valves on several pipelines, allowing oil to spill directly into the Gulf. Cries of outrage and accusations of 'environmental terrorism' filled the press. Pictures of oil-soaked, panic-stricken cormorants splashed across the front page of every newspaper.
Several days afterwards - in a minor briefing note - the US admitted that the slick caused by the Iraqis had not yet hit land. The dying birds were in fact being killed by the slick from earlier attacks on installations - including the US bombing of the tankers.
In the end it doesn't much matter which military was responsible for the oil spills. The fact is that within days of the start of the War there were several very large spills circulating throughout the Gulf. The Saudi Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration estimated seven million barrels in total - approximately twice the size of the world's previous largest oil spill and 20 times the size of the Exxon Valdez accident.
The oil spills devastated the marine environment. Grass-beds, mud-flats and salt-marshes were coated with oil. Beaches were fouled, wetlands and mangroves were destroyed. Mousse-like slicks several miles wide threatened the entire coastal ecology of the Gulf from Kuwait to Oman. Fragile coral reef systems were damaged. It is still not clear how much the oil spills affected marine mammals in the Gulf. but birds, especially cormorants, grebes and herons were hard hit. Saudi officials estimate that between 15,000 and 30,000 birds were killed by oil.
The fishing industry in the Gulf - a crucial source of food protein for people around its rim - was all but closed down by late January 1991. The Saudi Arabian shrimp industry was wiped out early in the War and it is unlikely that it will recover before the end of the decade.
A marine oil spill of this nature is all but impossible to clean up. Even under the best of circumstances, oil industry specialists estimate that a 15 per cent cleanup is all that can be expected - and in the Gulf the efforts were half-hearted. The bill for long-term cleanup could run to five billion dollars and no country appears willing to pick it up. Given six months' notice, and the certain knowledge that oil would be used as a weapon, it is quite inexplicable why no contingency plans were made.
Oil fires had also been predicted - as many as 850 of them were raging in Kuwait at the end of the War. At the Second World Climate Conference in Geneva in November 1990, King Hussein of Jordan outlined the consequences very clearly2. Iraqi sabotage did not cause all - or even most - of these fires. Coalition bombing certainly accounted for many.
Spewing smoke, soot, carcinogenic gases and particles over hundreds of miles, these fires will be taking their toll well into the future. Medical workers in Kuwait reported dramatic rates of serious respiratory diseases, especially among the elderly and children, who are at particular risk. Wind-borne oily particles and soot settled on agricultural land throughout the Gulf, polluting water supplies as well as food stocks. At their peak, the fires were releasing one million tons of sulphur dioxide and 100,000 tons of nitrogen oxides every month. They produced acid rain fallout and dry acid deposits as far as 1,200 miles away.
The Iraqi 'scorched earth' policy in Kuwait was bad enough, but if anything the Coalition action in Iraq was even worse. In the last months of 1990 Western newspapers regularly featured maps of Iraq with probable targets for bombing - nuclear plants, chemical weapons production facilities, industrial sites, urban centres. The dots of targets on the maps snaked north and west across the country, following the course of the Tigris River.
These targets were attacked early on and repeatedly. Within ten days the US military reported that over 500 'sorties' had been flown against 31 Iraqi chemical and nuclear plants - several had been 'reduced to rubble' and all had been disabled, despite a UN resolution in December 1990 banning attacks on nuclear facilities.
The US military was unduly proud of all this damage, but hastened to add that it was '99 per cent' confident that no chemical or radiation contamination had resulted - an inherently implausible claim. Independent observers suggest that, on the contrary, there is considerable danger of chemical and nuclear contamination when working chemical or nuclear plants and storage facilities are attacked.
The Iraqi military was presumed to have stockpiles of chemical weapons - mustard gas, hydrogen cyanide, nerve gases such as Tabun, Sam and phosgene - and biological agents like anthrax, botulism and plague organisms. Iraq reportedly had the capacity to produce as much as 700 tons of chemical warfare agents annually and had huge stockpiles. It was, after all, the existence of these capabilities that was used to justify military intervention by the West.
We have little reliable information from Iraq about the consequences of these attacks. We may yet get corroborated reports of severe chemical and biological contamination in Iraq. Its effects, however, could be difficult to distinguish from the generalized environmental havoc. Reporting is still patchy and chaotic. But the few independent observers who have issued reports paint a picture of a country teetering on the brink of apocalypse.
The UN task force that visited Baghdad in 1991 suggests that most of the damage to civilian support structures was the result of bombing intended to destroy Iraq's urban and industrial base - random and indiscriminate saturation bombing to bring the populace to its knees. Tens of thousands of people - 72,000 by one estimate - have been left homeless by bomb damage to private homes.
The burden of all this damage has not been borne evenly. Women in both Kuwait and Iraq - even urban women unused to fashioning family provisions from raw materials - have become the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Within weeks of the outbreak of war most of the trees in Iraq's cities had been felled for fuelwood.
As women cook, wash clothes and dishes and draw water from sewage-poisoned rivers, they are the first and most seriously affected by water-borne diseases. Under conditions of food scarcity adult women and girl children typically eat last and least. The patterns of malnutrition in Iraq will doubtless reflect this cultural pecking order.
Indigenous people are hard-hit too. The lands of Bedouins have been devastated, the desert systems on which they rely mined, bombed, poisoned and debased. British newspapers reported that their tents had been mistaken for missile launcher sites. Large numbers of camels were killed, victims of bored soldiers taking target practice or of confused electronic guidance systems. Military activity, pollution and oil spills have dislocated the Marsh Arabs, a little-known population that lives in the wetlands and marshes of the Gulf.
An optimist might wish to believe that green consciousness' has permeated the Western world - even its military rhetoric. But there is little cause for optimism to be found in the Gulf War. It underscores how ineffectual green consciousness has been in tempering the institutions of mass destruction - or implementing international conventions. The protagonists flaunted several UN resolutions and at least six articles of the Geneva Convention which protect civilian populations and natural environments in times of war.
So the larger lesson is clear. The terrible environmental cost of maintaining militarized states is high - so high it may cost us the Earth.
Joni Seager teaches in the US and is the author (with Ann Olson) of Women in the World - an International Atlas.
1 The Ixtoc Well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979.
2 The US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in March 1991 roughly ten times as much air pollution was being emitted in Kuwait as by all US industrial and power-generating plants combined.
Into the inferno
Flying over the Gulf in early August 1991 I saw for the first time the huge plume of black smoke spreading out like a fan and extending more than 1,000 kilometres south. From the air it looked like a huge wound, as if the Earth's surface had been gashed and its innards were gushing out. Once on the ground it was impossible to appreciate the colossal scale of the pollution, but the smell of hydrocarbons immediately alerted my senses that something was wrong.
The sky was hazy, with sunlight struggling to penetrate the layer of dirt four kilometres high. Sunset occurred an hour earlier than normal. In Bahrain temperatures were five to ten degrees below normal - which meant that in the cool of the evening they would drop to a mere 30 degrees.
I was in the Gulf with a Greenpeace expedition. Our aim was to assess the damage done by the War to the environment, to marine and terrestrial ecosystems and, by association, to every single one of us. As part of the atmospheric team I travelled 2,000 kilometres through the area, but the focus of my work was Kuwait.
During the Kuwaiti spring the desert usually blossoms with flowers, carpeting the sand for a few brief weeks. That spring there had been no flowers. The fallout of partially-burned oily particles from the fires covered half Kuwait, turning the sand from a light reflective colour to a lifeless black mass. Huge lakes of oil, formed by wells which had been put out but not yet capped, fooled migratory birds searching for water into a slow, sticky death. Dead camels, gutted military vehicles and unexploded mines littered the landscape.
I went to the oil fields three times while I was in Kuwait. Changes in climatic conditions created a different atmosphere each time. When a wind blew the smoke spread from its source rapidly and it was possible to see considerable distances across a landscape that was almost lunar in its lifelessness.
But one afternoon we found the oil fields in a very strange condition. The air was totally still and extremely humid, preventing the smoke from dispersing. As we entered the black cloud which surrounded a number of burning wells we found an American fire-fighting team hanging around.
'Never seen conditions like this,' said one. 'We've had to stop working. Can't see what we're doing.'
It was one o'clock in the afternoon, unbearably hot, breathing was extremely difficult and the sun had been blotted out of the sky. On three sides we were surrounded by raging oil fires. The heat was so intense that lakes of oil were also burning.
Through the middle of this vision of hell on Earth the road ran, a strip of safety cleared of mines and the only piece of land where we did not run the risk of being burned alive or blown to pieces. Night enveloped us in mid-afternoon. As we collected air, soil and vegetation samples, the only light we had was the orange glow of the fires, reflecting off the sweat on our brows. It was an angry light and it came from deep within the Earth.
We spent two hours in this inferno. By the time we were packed and ready to leave, my gas mask had become unbearable. At the point where it made contact with my face, sweat had mixed with the filth of the fallout and irritated my skin terribly. My eyes were streaming and the dense grime which filled the air had ingrained itself into my hair, my nose, every crevice of my body.
We left the fires that afternoon knowing we had witnessed something unique. We drove back into Kuwait City in silence, exhausted, shaken and filthy. It would take more than a shower and a good sleep to recover.
It was only after I returned to England that the enormity of the destruction began to sink in. For a while I became very despondent. I could see no reason for optimism. But in the desolate oil fields small green shoots have already started to reappear. We have been warned about the terrible impact on the environment of modern conflict. But the Earth will prevail.
Nolan Fell is a researcher and writer who lives in London.