Threats to the Environment Posed by War in Iraq
CAMBRIDGE, UK, (February 16, 2003 - BirdLife International today identified
the main threats to the environment posed by a war in Iraq in a dossier of
information, maps and photographs sent to the United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP), the five permanent members of the UN Security Council
(China, France, Russia, the UK and USA) and the Government of Iraq. The
dossier highlights threats to local people and key natural sites critical for
globally threatened and endemic biodiversity in Iraq and the endangered
Mesopotamian wetlands .
Based on the unprecedented environmental damage caused by the 1990-1991
Gulf War and available data on the environmental effects of recent conflicts in
Yugoslavia and Afghanistan [2,3], BirdLife has identified seven risks to the
environment and biodiversity - and as a consequence also to local people -
posed by war:
- Physical destruction and disturbance of natural habitats of international
importance and wildlife resulting from weapons use
- Toxic pollution of natural habitats and wildlife resulting from oil spills or oilwell
fires caused by fighting or deliberate damage
- Radiological, chemical or bio-toxic contamination of natural habitats and
wildlife resulting from the use of weapons of mass destruction and
conventional bombing of military or industrial facilities
- Physical destruction of natural habitats and wildlife resulting from increased
human pressure caused by mass movements of refugees (ie, water pollution,
use of wood as fuel, hunting of wildlife)
- Burning of wetland and forest vegetation as a result of fighting or deliberate
- Desertification exacerbated by military vehicles and weapons use
- Extinction of endemic species or subspecies
"Until recently the impact of war on nature has often been ignored or obscured
by the conflict itself. As the 1990-1991 Gulf War showed, such conflicts have
devastating effects on the environment, biodiversity and the quality of life of
local people long after the cessation of hostilities", said Dr Michael Rands,
Director and Chief Executive of BirdLife International.
Iraq has a number of internationally important natural areas, in particular
Important Bird Areas (IBAs). "Waders and waterbirds will be particularly at risk
from oil spills because Iraq is at the northern end of the Arabian Gulf which is
one of the top five sites in the world for wintering wader birds and a key
refuelling area for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterbirds during the
spring and autumn period" said Mike Evans, a BirdLife researcher who visited
the Arabian Gulf in 1991.
In 1991 BirdLife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
(RSPB - BirdLife in the UK) sent three teams of scientists to the Gulf region to
collaborate with the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and
Development (BirdLife in Saudi Arabia) and with the Kuwaiti Environment
Protection Council to assess the environmental impacts of the war and
resulting oil pollution. The results were published in the Journal of the
Ornithological Society of the Middle East .
These and other data show that the 1990-1991 Gulf War resulted in by far the
largest marine oil spills in history with 6-8 million barrels of crude oil spilled,
severely polluting 560km of coast, totally obliterating intertidal ecosystems and
resulting in large-scale oil slicks that severely damaged the northern Arabian
Gulf. Extensive mechanical damage by the manoeuvring armies also harmed
the fragile desert crust and its ecosystem.
Other oil spills occurred at Basrah refinery at the mouth of the Shatt Al-Arab,
from refineries on the coast of Kuwait, and from the storage depot at Al-Khafji
just south of the Kuwait-Saudi Arabian border. BirdLife International therefore
cautions that oil spills of the same scale or worse could occur if there is a new
Many of the natural habitats and sites impacted in the 1990-1991 Gulf War will
be at risk again in a new war. Recently the US administration stated it does not
rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Iraq. The Iraqi Government may itself
feel compelled to use weapons of mass destruction - if it still possesses any -
as a last resort if faced with the prospect of defeat.
A new war could result in physical destruction of natural areas and wildlife in
Iraq and the northern Arabian Gulf. The main habitats in Iraq are:
- Wetlands (<5%) 
- Coastal (<5%) 
- Desert (<80% of land) 
- Steppe (<15% of land) 
- Forest and high mountain scrub (<5% of land) 
Iraq contains 42 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and the Mesopotamian marshes
Endemic Bird Area (EBA). Sixteen globally threatened or near-threatened bird
species occur in the country, plus three unique endemic wetland bird species
(Iraq Babbler, Basra Reed Warbler, Grey Hypocolius) and five endemic or nearendemic marshland sub-species (Little Grebe, African Darter, Black Francolin,
White-eared Bulbul, Hooded Crow) .
"It was the heart-rending image of an oiled bird that became a symbol of the
environmental impact of the first Gulf War. BirdLife International hopes that
images of oiled birds do not once again fill our television screens in 2003",
said Dr Rands.
Before their near-total destruction between 1991 and 2002, the 15,000km2
Mesopotamian marshlands formed one of the most extensive wetland
ecosystems in western Eurasia. It comprised a complex of interconnected
freshwater lakes, marshes and inundated floodplains following the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers, extending from Baghdad in the north to Basra in the south.
Approximately 50km2 may remain. These remnants would have the potential to
help restore the marshlands.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report The
Mesopotamian Marshlands shows that destruction of the marshes in the 1990s
had a devastating effect on wildlife and people, "with significant implications to
global biodiversity from Siberia to southern Africa ... Mammals and fish that
existed only in the marshlands are now considered extinct. Coastal fisheries in
the northern Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have
also experienced a sharp decline." A sub-species of Otter and the Bandicoot
Rat are also believed to have become extinct .
The impact of this destruction has also deprived the indigenous Ma'dan people
who have lived in these marshes for 5,000 years, pursuing a sustainable way
of life based on the abundant fish and wildlife living in the wetlands, of their
traditional homeland. These marshlands were also important spawning
grounds for a multi-million dollar shrimp fishery in the Arabian Gulf and also
provided 60% of fish eaten in Iraq. Most of Iraq's rice, sugarcane and Water
Buffalo used to be reared in the marshlands.
They were also heavily degraded by the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Much of the
fighting took place in and around these wetlands resulting in extensive burning,
heavy bombing and the widespread use of napalm and chemical weapons. A
new war in Iraq could lead to their final destruction.
Art specialists concerned about potential threats to the thousands of
archaeological sites scattered throughout Iraq are supplying maps and
information to the US Defense Department as part of an initiative co-ordinated
by Arthur Houghton, a Middle East specialist and former Antiquities Curator at
the J. Paul Getty Museum, in an attempt to protect Iraq's cultural heritage
following initial disregard for archaeological sites during the first Gulf War
In the dossier BirdLife International also urges potential combatants in a war
not to deliberately target or damage globally important natural habitats and
biodiversity which, like Iraq's cultural heritage, have a unique and irreplaceable
value for humanity.
Notes for Editors
- BirdLife International is a global alliance of national conservation nongovernmental organisations working in more than 100 countries in five
continents who, together, are the leading authority on the status of the world's
birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting bird life.
- E Hoskins (1997) Public Health and the Persian Gulf War. In Levy, Barry and
Siddel (eds) War and Public Health. Oxford University Press. New York; US
EPA (1991), Kuwait Oil Fires: Interagency Interim Report, 3 April 1991, p1;
UNEP (1991), Gulf War Oil Spill: UNEP Appeals for International Action, Press
Release, 28 January 1991; Lee Hockstader (1991), UN Official Urges Fast
Assessment of Health Risks Posed by Oil Fires, Washington Post, 29 March
1991, p.A1; Greenpeace International (1991) On Impact - Modern Warfare and
the Environment. A case study of the Gulf War, WM Arkin, D Durrant and M
Cherni; Greenpeace International (1992) The Environmental Legacy of the Gulf
War, WM Arkin (ed).
- Assessment of the Environmental Impact of Military Activities During the
Yugoslavia Conflict, June 1999, Prepared for European Commission DG-XI -
Environment, Nuclear Safety and Civil Protection, The Regional Environment
Center for Central and Eastern Europe; United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP) 2003 Post-Conflict Assessment of the impact of war in
Afghanistan. The UNEP report found that two decades of war have laid waste to
the country's environment. Over 80% of Afghans live in rural areas where many
of their basic resources - water for irrigation, trees for food and fuel - have been
lost in just a generation. Millions of refugees are putting further strains on
natural resources. Four years of drought have compounded a state of
widespread and serious resource degradation: lowered water tables, dried-up
wetlands, denuded forests, eroded land and depleted wildlife populations. With
more than half the forests in three provinces destroyed in 25 years of conflict,
wildlife inevitably suffers.
- Sandgrouse, Arabian Gulf Issue, Volume 15, Parts 1-2, 1993. Journal of
Ornithological Society of the Middle East.
- Mainly the remaining Mesopotamian marshes in the Tigris/Euphrates valley.
- The Khawr Abdallah Important Bird Area (IBA) is particularly vulnerable to the
effects of an oil spill. In 1991 nearby oil terminals were bombed and damaged
leading to massive marine oil spills. The 1991 oil spills were blown out to sea,
but new oil spills in 2003 could be blown ashore impacting this IBA.
- Up to 90% of the Kuwaiti desert was impacted by military vehicle movements
- This habitat is especially important for agriculture.
- Remote forests in the mountains in northern Iraq are rich in biodiversity.
Refugee pressure from cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk could cause civilians
to flee to or through these mountains towards Iran and Turkey causing damage
to them as they move.
- Threatened Birds of the World, AJ Stattersfield and DR Capper (senior
editors), Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, 2000.
- UNEP (2001) The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem,
Early Warning and Assessment Technical Report.
DOCUMENTS IN THE DOSSIER
Related papers on the environmental impacts of the 1990-1991 Gulf War
Effects of the Gulf War oil spills and well-head fires on the avifauna and
environment of Kuwait. C.W.T. Pilcher and D.B. Sexton, Sandgrouse, Arabian
Gulf Issue, Volume 15, Parts 1-2, 1993. Ornithological Society of the Middle
Abstract: Large toxic oil lakes formed inland whilst burning well-heads poured tens of thousands of tonnes of toxic smoke into the atmosphere daily. At least 25% of Kuwait's desert was covered in oil or heavy deposits of oily soot. Probably 90% of Kuwait's desert surface was impacted by military activities and desertification was greatly exacerbated. All existing protected areas for nature conservation were damaged. In the Jal Az-Zawr National Park most habitats were seriously impacted by military activities.
Impact of Gulf War oil spills on wintering seabird populations along the northern
Arabian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia, 1991. P. Symens and A. Suhaibani,
Sandgrouse, Volume 15, Parts 1-2, 1993. Ornithological Society of the Middle
Abstract: Counts of dead birds along the northern Arabian Gulf coast of Saudi
Arabia indicated that more than 30,000 wintering seabirds were killed by oil
spills in January-April 1991.
Impact of Gulf War oil spills on the wader populations of the Saudi Arabian Gulf
coast. M.I. Evans and G.O. Keijl. Sandgrouse, Volume 15, Parts 1-2, 1993.
Ornithological Society of the Middle East.
Abstract: The northern half of the Saudi Arabian Gulf coastline (c.560km) was
heavily polluted by the enormous marine oil spills from February 1991
onwards. The study investigated the effects on coastal wader populations, and
found that the oiled coastline no longer supported significant numbers of
waders during the spring migration period of April-May 1991 or in early winter
(November-December 1991); the magnitude of the reduction in numbers
compared to a single previous baseline survey was estimated as c.97%.
List of Globally Threatened and Near-Threatened species present in Iraq
Greater Spotted Eagle
List of Endemic and Near-Endemic marshland species present in Iraq
List of Endemic and Near-Endemic marshland sub-species present in Iraq
List of seasonal migrants present in the Arabian Gulf during 1990-1991 Gulf
Lesser Sand Plover
Little Ringed plover
Lesser Crested Tern
Important Bird Areas in Iraq
The Mesopotamian marshlands Endemic Bird Area
Related papers from 'Sandgrouse', the Journal of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East