The Environment: another casualty of war?

by Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute

ust over a decade ago, facing imminent defeat at the hands of western forces, Saddam Hussein gave the order to unleash an ecological disaster of terrible proportions. As Iraqi forces retreated, they set fire to some 600 oil wells across Kuwait and intentionally spilled another four million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf.

    Amid what appear to be accelerating preparations for a new war, it is worth taking time to reflect on the environmental consequences of the 1991 Gulf War. War is inherently destructive. The purpose of the massive structures of military security that nations array against one another is the destruction of a physical enemy and his capacity to fight back. While smart bombs and precision guidance increase the probability that weapons will hit their targets, they do not eliminate so-called “collateral damage” to people and ecosystems. And there is reason to fear that Saddam Hussein will fight the next war in ways that maximize “collateral damage.”

    In fact, what many recall as a short-lived conflict resulting in the liberation of Kuwait was an environmental disaster – one from which the region and its people have yet to recover.

    Iraqi forces themselves created much of the immediate ecological hardship facing the Gulf region after the war. Oil spilled into the Persian Gulf, tarred beaches and killed more than 25,000 birds. Scientists predict the toxic residue will continue to affect fisheries in the Gulf for over 100 years. As much as six million barrels of oil a day – almost ten percent of the world's daily ration of oil that year – shot into the air from the burning wells. Oil spilled on land formed huge pools in lowlands, covering fertile croplands. One oil lake in southern Kuwait was a half a mile long and 25 feet deep in places. It contained nine times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spill.

    The deposition of oil, soot, sulfur, and acid rain on croplands up to 1,200 miles in all directions from the oil fires turned fields untillable and led to food shortages that continue to this day. The fires released nearly half a billion tons of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming, emissions greater than all but the eight largest polluting countries for 1991 that will remain in the atmosphere for more than a century. The oil that did not burn in the fires traveled on the wind in the form of nearly invisible droplets resulting in an oil mist or fog that poisoned trees and grazing sheep, contaminated fresh water supplies, and found refuge in the lungs of people and animals throughout the Gulf.

    As pundits discuss the appropriate postwar political arrangements for Iraq, it is essential to prepare for the possible environmental devastation. The immediate human suffering is likely to be prolonged by environmental destruction from a war that takes place amid the oil fields and one of the world's great river deltas. The Persian Gulf, in general, and Iraq, in particular, already has a fragile ecosystem. If the United States and its allies ultimately decide to go to war in the Persian Gulf, those in command can do a great deal to prepare for the most likely environmental consequences and should be armed with a plan to minimize the damage once the conflict begins.

    This means being better equipped to put out probable oil fires and contain massive spills, as well as being prepared to repair disruptions to the country's infrastructure, particularly aqueducts, caused by bombs and shells. Plans also need to be drawn accounting for the mass exodus of Iraqi refugees, if this conflict is indeed the type of urban warfare many experts predict.

    Any plan for a war in Iraq must address how Iraq will be governed in the future. The Baathist regime currently in power has been a disaster in the area of environmental governance. Between 1973 and 2000, over 85% or 8,000 square kilometers, of the Mesopotamian wetlands, Iraq's primary source of freshwater, was destroyed in what the United Nations has called “one of humanity's worst engineered disasters.”

    Should a U.S.-led coalition attack Iraq and topple Saddam's regime, the succeeding government must be equipped with the knowledge, technology, equipment, and desire to act as protectors of those who live there and good stewards of the environment they are inheriting. Economic and ecological recovery will be linked, and preparing for both is the only way to truly better the lives of the Iraqi citizens and prevent the collapse of the ecosystems that support life. Personal well-being and political stability are at risk when ecosystems continue to be stretched beyond their limits. As communities and social structures are disrupted, livelihoods are destroyed, traditional cultures endangered and wildlife exterminated.

    War destroys, it does not create. It is not destruction, but reconstruction that can give hope for the future. Ultimately, security and stability in Iraq will depend more on the long-term impact of war and its aftermath on people than on the short-term military outcome, and over the decades, the environmental consequences of armed conflict will loom large. For that reason they must be part of the strategy.

    Jonathan Lash, President, The World Resources Institute; 10 G Street, NE, 8th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20002; (202) 729-7675.