The Last "Liberation" Was an "Environmental Disaster"
by Jonathan Lash, director, World Resources Institute
Reflections on War and the Environment
(From an interview on MSNBC.com)
Speculating on potential loss of life and damage to ecosystems as a result of war is
an inexact science at best. What we do have, however, are some salient facts from the
1991 Gulf War.
Just 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 more than 600 oil wells across
Kuwait and intentionally spilled another 4 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf.
Indeed, what many recall as a short-lived conflict resulting in the liberation of Kuwait
was in fact 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 -
not counting those of the 2 to 3 million birds that regularly use the gulf as a resting
area during the spring migration to Europe and may have died elsewhere. Scientists
predict the toxic residue could continue to affect fisheries in the gulf for over 100 years.
More than 80 percent of the livestock animals in Kuwait - primarily cattle, sheep and
goats - died between the Iraqi occupation in August 1990 and the cease-fire in
March 1991. Livestock, horses and camels continue to perish as they wander into
unmarked fields of land mines left behind by retreating Iraqi forces.
As much as 6 million barrels of oil a day - almost 10 percent of the world's daily
ration of oil that year - shot into the air from the burning wells. It took more than 250
days to extinguish the fires. 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. 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 freshwater supplies and found
refuge in the lungs of people and animals throughout the gulf.
To date, Kuwait has submitted more than $17 billion in environmental damage claims
to the United Nations Compensation Commission.
A "Victory" that May Prove too Costly
It has become more and more apparent that victory in a war with Iraq may come at too
high a cost to both people and the environment. According to U.S. officials, there is
strong evidence to suggest Saddam plans to pursue a "scorched earth" strategy in
the event of war with the United States and would destroy his country's oil fields,
electrical power plants, food storage sites and other facilities while blaming U.S.
military forces for the damage. As was the case in 1991, if he believes his government
is about to fall, it appears he will try to create a humanitarian crisis that could slow any
U.S. invasion and foster international opposition to the war. While oil was Saddam's
weapon of choice in 1991, this time around it would most likely be accomplished
through the release of biological or chemical weapons as a last desperate act.
Ecosystem damage also depends on whether the United States and its allies are
prepared to mitigate that kind of destruction. This means being better equipped to
deal with potential human suffering as a result of the release of biological or chemical
agents, 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
The Pentagon's "Scorched Earth" Strategy
U.S. officials have predicted a "scorched earth" war strategy by Saddam Hussein. That
would be a tragedy for his people and the region. Regardless of the level of conflict,
however, there is still the question of who succeeds Saddam's regime in the
Any plan for a war in the gulf 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 percent, or 8,000 square kilometers, of
the Mesopotamian wetlands, Iraq's primary source of freshwater, was destroyed. The
United Nations has called the management of the delta "one of humanity's worst
The United Nations Environmental Program in 2001 released a report on the demise
of the Mesopotamian Marshlands. In it, they outlined the systematic destruction of the
ecosystem by Saddam's regime. Marshland dewatering, as a result of massive
draining of the wetlands by Iraqi engineers, is labeled the immediate cause of the
crisis. More than half a million Marsh Arabs have been displaced because of the loss
of freshwater resources. The disappearance of the marshlands has placed an
estimated 40 species of waterfowl at risk; mammals and fish that existed only in the
marshlands are now considered extinct; and coastal fisheries in the northern Persian
Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for nursery and spawning grounds, have
experienced sharp declines. UNEP remains hopeful that the remaining wetlands can
be saved with bold measures.
Should a US-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
Economic and ecological recovery are intrinsically 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.