Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts of a Persian Gulf War

September 19th, 2003 - by admin

by Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal –

A war in the Middle East will have, as President Bush says, “terrible consequences” not just for Iraq, but for the planet as well.

Even without the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, the Gulf region will suffer major damage to cropland, irrigation systems and fisheries. If the region’s vast oil reserves are ignited, the Middle East could vanish beneath a pall of smoke so intense it would bring on what some are calling a “Petroleum Winter.” Like the specter of “Nuclear Winter,” such a conflagration could lower temperatures dramatically, triggering weather changes, floods and crop damage around the world.

Unlike other oil-producing countries in the Persian Gulf region, Iraq has been a traditional agricultural society. Nearly a quarter of the population and one-sixth of the land are involved in raising crops and livestock. Modern-day Iraq (once known as “Mesopotamia”) lies on the fertile Tigris-Euphrates delta, the fabled “cradle of western civilization.” With a recorded history spanning 4000 years, Iraq boasts a wealth of holy sites, centuries-old buildings and archaeological treasures — including the biblical cities of Nineveh, Ur and Babylon. In a war, many of these irreplaceable antiquities could be destroyed or damaged beyond repair .

On December 8, the Washington Post reported that, if the White House were to order troops to attack, “a full-scale ground war would be the centerpiece of its military strategy” and predicted “a violent, bloody, overland war — possibly involving the greatest tank battle in the history of warfare.”

According to the Post, the US would employ special “earth-penetrator” bombs that could burrow 200 feet beneath the surface before exploding. Anti-personnel “cluster” munitions the size of tennis balls would be scattered over the ground, set to “explode in a deadly spray of steel pellets if disturbed by Iraqi repair crews.” Such indiscriminate weapons would also kill any children or wildlife that happened to disturb them.

Having destroyed military and industrial sites, US airpower would be turned against civilian targets — refineries, power plants, hydroelectric dams, desalinization plants and irrigation canals (some of which are more than 1000 years old). The Congressional Research Office has actually proposed bombing Iraq’s irrigation system and dams to “encourage floods.” Attacking the dams on the three main rivers in the Zagros mountains north of Baghdad could cause severe damage to the capital.

The southern region of Iraq that would likely bear the brunt of an aerial assault supports one of the world’s largest date crops. In addition to highly valued export crops like rice, wheat, barley and cotton, the region also produces a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and livestock. A massive US air attack on Iraq could turn the Iraqi “breadbasket” into a war-torn basketcase of cratered, poisoned earth.

Petroleum Winter
On November 6, 1990, King Hussein I of Jordan startled participants at the Second World Climate Conference in Geneva when he suggested that if half of Kuwait’s oil reserves (50 billion barrels) were to be ignited during a war “the environmental impact would be swift, severe and devastating.” [See story on page 32.]

This threat was echoed by Dr. John Cox, a London-based chemical and environmental engineer. “If, as is likely, Iraq has mined the Kuwaiti oil wells,” Cox told a international meeting of scientists in London on January 2, “the resulting fires could burn almost three million barrels of oil a day from nearly 1000 installations. Dr. Abdullah Toukan, secretary-general of Jordan’s Higher Council for Science and Technology predicted that attacks on oil installations could pour of two million barrels of oil each day (nearly eight times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill).

Dr. Cox expanded on his warning in an article published in the Environmental Protection Bulletin of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Dr. Cox argues that the threat of global warming is “peripheral” and would add “less than five percent extra CO2 to worldwide emissions which, though undesirable, hardly rates as a global eco-catastrophe.”

“The main dangers arise from the major by-products of uncontrolled combustion — CO2, SO2, Nox and, above all, smoke,” Cox argues. “Within 1000 miles of Kuwait, the pall of smoke could be as great as predicted by nuclear war scenarios and, almost without exception, these predict the failure of the Asian monsoons… thousands of miles away.” The International Council of Scientific Unions warns that the smoke could also disrupt the African monsoons and the crops that depend on them.

“Failure of the Asian monsoons is not an academic curiosity,” Cox notes, since “Upwards of one billion people depend on the annual rains for their crops and could face starvation…. Even a partial failure could cause more deaths than the total populations of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia combined.”
Basil Butler, a former engineer with the Kuwait Oil Company, has estimated it would take nine months to extinguish a Middle East oil fire but Cox believes that, even under the best of circumstances (and assuming that the war is over and one fire could be extinguished each day) the fires could rage for 10 months to three years, long enough to create an “equatorial ozone hole” that would prove “catastrophic for plant and animal life.” Meanwhile, millions of people on the Indian subcontinent would be blistered by intense waves of ultraviolet light, giving rise to unprecedented incidences of skin cancers and cataracts. Loss of the ozone could also prove to be “a further destabilizing factor in the many and complex feedback mechanisms that determine the climate of the region,” Cox believes.

Professor Paul Crutzen, Director of Atmospheric Chemistry at Germany’s Max Planck Institute also believes a Gulf War would be an “act of madness” that could trigger an “environmental catastrophe.” Prof. Crutzen calculates that the ignition of Kuwait’s oil fields could burn ten million barrels of oil a day and produce a 620,000 square-mile smoke plume every 24 hours — enough smoke to blanket an area larger than Alaska every day.

Kuwait’s high-pressure wells push oil to the surface without need for pumping. One ignited they would be very difficult to extinguish, especially as temperatures around the fires would rise to 160°F, whipped by Dresden-scale firestorms. “In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster,” Cox concludes, “helicopters were used to entomb the reactor under thousands of tons of cement. One must hope that something of this nature is being planned for….”

The Gulf Ecosystem
According to a 1985 United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Regional Seas Report on the Persian Gulf, this relatively small sea with a total area of 240,000 square kilometers [92,665 sq. mi.] is regarded as “having one of the most fragile and endangered ecosystems with a variety of critical habitats.” UNEP has ranked the Persian Gulf’s complex ecosystem of intertidal flats, marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass beds as “among the most productive water bodies in the world.”

Despite the high salinity in the shallow waters, UNEP investigators discovered the Gulf “contains a richer biota than generally acknowledged. The shallow depth and modest rate of water exchange also make the area particularly vulnerable to damage from oil spills, [oil] dispersants and other pollution.” For comparison, it takes about 28 days for ocean currents to completely replace the waters Prince William Sound, site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill: the “flush out” period for the Persian Gulf is approximately 200 years.

The Gulf’s distinctive dense brown algae and seaweed beds provide food and shelter for fish, birds, pearl oysters, green turtles, dugongs and shrimp (Kuwait Bay boasts one of the most important shrimp nurseries in the region). UNEP believes that one form of sargassum seaweed found in the Gulf “may be a species (or even a genus) new to science.”

Following the destruction wrought by the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the gulf nations — Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Sultanate of Oman — signed a Kuwait Action Plan (KAP) to assess and repair the damage.

One of KAP’s initial findings was that the 350 km [217 miles] of beaches found along Saudi Arabia that provide important nesting sites for turtles and terns were becoming “increasingly vulnerable to oil spillages, flotsam and refuse” and, in some cases, were “sometimes used as ‘sacrificial beaches’ or repositories for oil contained and collected from spills.”

Several coral-ringed islands in the Gulf are major breeding sanctuaries for turtles and provide rookeries for various birds. Populations of the planet’s threatened green turtle are still common in the Gulf. Hawksbill, loggerheads and leatherback turtles are also present. The loggerhead population on Masirah island off the coast of Oman includes an estimated 30,000 egg-laying turtles and is considered by far the largest single nesting site for the species in the world. Driftwood (or war wreckage) swept up on sandy beaches can make it difficult for turtles to nest and block hatchlings trying to struggle back to the safety of the sea.

Any decrease in light penetration caused by sediment, oil spills or the smoke from burning oil tanks can damage the region’s coral reefs, leading to a collapse of entire reef-based ecosystems.

The KAP region boasts 350 species of shorebirds including ducks, herons, flamingos, plovers, snipe, curlew, grebes, cormorants, gulls and terns. “Breeding birds are particularly susceptible to disturbance,” KAP observes, pointing to a spill of 20,000 barrels of light crude in the early 1980s that resulted in the deaths of a thousand birds, mostly cormorants and white-cheeked terns.

The Gulf’s wetlands are part of an essential flyway for 113 species of birds that migrate between Africa and Euro-Russia. As many as two million birds, comprising 125 different species, winter in the Gulf each year. Since migrating birds play an important role in keeping crop-eating insects in check, any harm to these wetlands could have severe international environmental impacts.

Attacks on the Sea
There are more than 25 major oil terminals dotting the Gulf. Anywhere from 20,000 to 35,000 tankers enter the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz every year. There are 34 offshore gas and oil fields with as many as 50 wells sunk from a single platform. Altogether there are more than 800 producing offshore wells in the Gulf. Thousands of kilometers of pipelines lie on the bottom of the sea carrying oil, gas and production water from offshore wells to onshore terminals. Because of the Gulf’s shallow waters (the average depth is 35 meters), these pipes are occasionally ruptured by passing ships, leading to underwater spills.

Even in peacetime, UNEP reports, this region “is likely to be the marine area that receives the largest quantities of oil pollution in the world.” An estimated 150,000 metric tons of oil each year — more than three percent of the world’s entire maritime oil pollution — is spilled in the course of normal operations.

During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war some 329 “war related incidents” were reported, with at least 13 resulting in confirmed pollution. Hundreds of ships were damaged or sunk; at least 17 large wrecks continue to pose a threat to safe navigation.

“The Gulf war did untold damage to the marine environment,” The Middle East magazine reported last year. “There were many direct hits of important maritime targets including oil tankers, oil refineries and other offshore oil terminals and platforms, causing enormous spills….”

Even worse than a direct hit on a fully loaded oil tanker would be an attack on an oil platform. Artificial structures, such as oil platforms, provide more than “targets of opportunity” in a war zone, they also provide a substratum for many forms of marine life, acting as an “artificial reef.” More than 170 species have been recorded inhabiting such structures in the Persian Gulf.

“Because oil is easily ignited,” Dr. Brent Blackwelder, Vice-President of Friends of the Earth, warns, “a thick tarry mist could sink to the bottom [of the Gulf] creating a pavement in what is now a productive resource for millions of people.”

The longest recorded oil blowout in the Gulf occurred in January 1983 following an Iraqi attack on Iran’s Nowruz drilling platform. Oil from the shattered platform poured unchecked for nearly eight months, spilling more than half a million barrels (more than twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill) of crude into the Gulf, coating beaches in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. Shortly after the Nowruz spill, large numbers of dead fish, turtles, sea snakes, dolphins and dugongs (a species of manatee) were found washed up dead along extensive stretches of the coastline, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

In October 1986, several weeks after Iraq bombed the Iranian oil terminals on Sirri Island in the southern Gulf, 527 dead dolphins washed up on the shores of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran. The shores were also littered with large numbers of dead fish and the carcasses of seven dugongs, 58 turtles and one large whale.

“Prudent and Restrained”
The US has already played a role in the environmental devastation of the Persian Gulf. After President Reagan ordered US naval forces into the Iran-Iraq War in 1987 on the side of Iraq, the Navy opened fire on the two Rashadat oil platforms located 75 miles off Iran’s coast. Four US warships pounded the platform with 1065 rounds of five-inch shells. The first salvo ignited a ferocious fire that fed a series of explosions. After 45 minutes, there was little left of the platforms but the Navy continued shelling for another 45 minutes in what one official described as “a show of force.” President Reagan later characterized the attack as “prudent yet restrained.”

Attacks on the Desert
The Gulf states’ deserts may look barren and foreboding but, like all deserts, they comprise a fragile ecosystem that can be easily damaged. TIME magazine reports that “a ground assault to liberate Kuwait would be the largest tank battle ever fought in the desert” with the expected loss of 200 US tanks, 200 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and most of their 3200 occupants. The face of the desert would also be savaged.

Just staging Operation Desert Shield has placed severe stress on the local desert ecology. According to the Washington Post, accommodating the additional 200,000 troops called up by President Bush requires military construction of “aircraft ramps and parking aprons, building maintenance hangars at airfields and ports and laying roads across the desert.”
Meanwhile across the border, Iraqi forces have done even greater damage to the deserts of Kuwait. Within the first few months of its invasion, Iraq’s front line defenses included more than 560 miles of new roads, 12-foot high earthen berms built to protect tanks and artillery, miles of concrete-and-steel-reinforced trenches, vast sections of land mined with tank and anti-personnel weapons, and rows of anti-tank ditches filled with spikes, cement blocks and 55-gallon drums of napalm set for remote detonation.

University of London biologist J. L. Cloudsley-Thompson, recalls the unprecedented dust storms that swept out of the deserts following the tank battles of World War II. “I remember one, in Libya, in May 1942, when I could not discern the glow from an electric torch at night at a distance of three paces….” Cloudsley-Thompson writes in a 1990 issue of the journal of the International Society of Naturalists. Destruction of the native vegetation, he notes, “gave rise to dust storms when the wind velocity was only half that usually needed to cause them, thereby increasing their annual frequency tenfold.”

Because the desert soil is held in place by a living crust of microorganisms, algae, ephemeral plants, salt, sand and silt, Cloudsley-Thompson explains, “The passage of even one vehicle may do irreparable harm.” The desert’s sparse vegetation is easily destroyed by off-road vehicles and armored tanks that break the protective crust and compact the soil. “Recovery is slow. After 40 years, only about 35 percent of the vegetation had recovered on vehicle tracks and some 18 percent on a heavily used road in the region of General George S. Patton’s wartime tank maneuver areas of California,” Cloudsley-Thompson writes, adding that full recovery from the damage from armored fighting vehicles “is almost certain to take many thousands of years.”

When the perennial cover is destroyed, erosion begins to scatter the desert’s pockets of soil. Stripped of ground cover, surface temperatures can begin to rise, triggering droughts and irreversible ecological changes.

Desert maneuvers also pose a direct threat to wildlife. The Saudi and Kuwati deserts are home to jackals, hares, sand cats, insects, reptiles and birds. (Gazelles and oryx used to roam these lands until they were hunted to extinction by the 1960s.)

Observations in the deserts of California have found that some burrowing animals can confuse the sound of approaching vehicles with the drumming of approaching rains. Rushing to the surface, they quickly die from dehydration. The delicate hearing of desert animals can be destroyed by even short bursts of noise, making them unable to identify prey or evade predators. The sound from a single passing vehicle can damage the hearing of kangaroo rats for up to three weeks.

Because of the desert heat, most of the Gulf region’s wildlife only ventures out at night. Unfortunately this is when US infantry guided by infra-red “night-vision” goggles will also be active. Major US tank and aircraft attacks would also be carried out during night-strike scenarios.

In a war, anywhere from one to five percent of the shells and bombs used fails to explode. During the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, great numbers of unexploded bombs wound up along the banks and in the Suez Canal. In the 45 years since the end of WWII, more than 16 million artillery shells, 490,000 bombs and 600,000 underwater mines have been dug out of the French countryside but millions of acres still remain permanently off limits. “Not only do they kill human beings,” Cloudsley-Thompson writes, “but they destroy domestic animals and wildlife. They obstruct agriculture, hamper soil and water surveys and other rural planning activities, exacerbating existing burdens of hunger and poverty in developing Third World nations.” Whether they explode or just corrode, these weapons will release charges of heavy metals, chemical agents and (if tactical nuclear weapons are detonated) radioactivity into soil and groundwater.

Waste in the Desert
When a population of half a million men and women is suddenly transported into a desert, it brings with it all the support and pollution problems associated with running a city the size of Atlanta, Georgia.

There is only one substance that is more valuable than oil in the Middle East and that is water. Operation Desert Shield’s US troops and equipment require in excess of eight million gallons of water a day — this in a country where 90 percent of the water is used for agriculture and is drawn from underground aquifers that are so depleted they may be exhausted by the year 2007. With the aquifers running dry, the survival of the region’s human population may soon rely solely on water drawn from scores of desalinization plants (29 in Saudi Arabia alone). In the event of war, these facilities may become military targets. Those that are not destroyed by bombs could be rendered useless by oil spilled into the seawater that the plants use to produce drinkable water.

Meanwhile, far out in the Gulf, the fine desert sand that blows off the land falls on US ships, requiring that sensitive radar dishes be regularly rinsed off with fresh water. Cleaning radar equipment is nothing compared to rinsing off the aftermath of a chemical attack. A September 1990 Congressional Research Office study reports that “it takes about 200,000 gallons of fresh water to decontaminate one division.” (And where do you pour the decontaminated rinse water afterwards?)

With 430,000 US troops consuming at least two hot meals a day in plastic MRE bags (Meals Ready to Eat or, as they are known to US troops, “Meals Refused by Ethiopians”), Desert Shield would be generating more than six million used food bags each week [Fall 1990 EIJ]. Recalling his Vietnam experience, Col. Pearce Wood of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, joked that the MRE pack “probably has a half life of 25,000 years.” In addition to the mounting volumes of MREs and plastic water bottles, add the packaging litter that has resulted from the corporate donations of tons of twinkies, soda cans and other public relations goodies.

Moving trash is not a major priority when troops are involved in a life-and-death situation, Col. Wood observed. “Trash runs can impinge on equipment life,” he explained.

Pentagon authorities have deemed waste disposal “the responsibility of the host country” but, as Joni Seager observes in a recent article in the Village Voice (“Operation Desert Disaster”), in this case it means “the Saudis now must also dispose of the wastes from an added population that is more than half the size of their largest city.”

Desert Shield’s wastes will inevitably wind up in desert burial pits. Unfortunately, with the US military’s record for releasing toxic wastes (averaging nearly a ton of toxic pollutants every minute) there is reason to be concerned for the aquifers that underlie the desert’s sandy soil. Solvents, acids, fuel, paint, phenols, lubricants, explosives, PCBs and other wastes lost in the daily operations of the US military may add large stretches of Saudi desert to the more than 14,000 sites in the US already contaminated by military pollution.

Meanwhile, the 675,000-plus members of the allied forces are generating an extraordinary amount of human waste. Using “conservative” EPA figures, US forces would be generating an estimated 30 million gallons of sewage each day.

Trash pits cannot handle such volumes of waste. In Vietnam, human wastes at base camps were deposited in trenches. When there was no longer any clean land left, the troops did what civilians do when the landfills run out — they turn to incineration.

“We would saw off the bottom eight to ten inches of a 55 gallon drum,” Col. Wood recalls. When these oil-drum privies became filled, diesel fuel would be used to incinerate the sewage. The procedure produced a “sooty black smoke” and an aroma that the Colonel will forever associate with Vietnam.

This aroma may eventually come to haunt the deserts of the Middle East but, for the moment, Desert Shield has been buying up scarce local lumber to build wooden latrines for the major troop encampments.

Impacts of Desert Shield
Even without resort to atomic weapons, modern warfare can make large areas of the planet uninhabitable for generations. Half of Vietnam’s mangrove swamps and five million acres of forest were destroyed by US chemical warfare agents. The poisons that stripped the land also entered the water, killing wildlife, deforming and blinding generations of children and leaving Vietnamese women with the highest rates of spontaneous abortion and cervical cancers in the world.

Given America’s string of broken promises to rebuild Grenada, Panama and Nicaragua, there is little reason to believe the US has either the ability or the will to restore a war-damaged Iraq. For too long, the US has relied on a foreign policy that relies on the threat of military destruction. A genuine “New World Order” would stress peaceful resolution of conflicts and conserve economic resources for environmental restoration.

This article was prepared with the assistance of Michael Renner (Worldwatch Institute), Joni Seager (The State of the Earth), Joshua Karliner (Environmental Project on Central America) and Betsy Folkins (The Middle East Institute).