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Threats to the Environment Posed by War in Iraq

Birdlife International

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 [1].

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:

  1. Physical destruction and disturbance of natural habitats of international importance and wildlife resulting from weapons use

  2. Toxic pollution of natural habitats and wildlife resulting from oil spills or oilwell fires caused by fighting or deliberate damage

  3. 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

  4. 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)

  5. Burning of wetland and forest vegetation as a result of fighting or deliberate damage

  6. Desertification exacerbated by military vehicles and weapons use

  7. 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 [4].

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 war.

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%) [5]
  • Coastal (<5%) [6]
  • Desert (<80% of land) [7]
  • Steppe (<15% of land) [8]
  • Forest and high mountain scrub (<5% of land) [9]

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) [10].

"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 [11].

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 (http://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/article.asp?idart=10250) 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. Sandgrouse, Arabian Gulf Issue, Volume 15, Parts 1-2, 1993. Journal of Ornithological Society of the Middle East.

  5. Mainly the remaining Mesopotamian marshes in the Tigris/Euphrates valley.

  6. 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.

  7. Up to 90% of the Kuwaiti desert was impacted by military vehicle movements in 1991.

  8. This habitat is especially important for agriculture.

  9. 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.

  10. Threatened Birds of the World, AJ Stattersfield and DR Capper (senior editors), Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, 2000.

  11. UNEP (2001) The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem, Early Warning and Assessment Technical Report.


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 East.

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 East.

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 Endangered:

White-headed Duck


Socotra Cormorant
Marbled Teal
Greater Spotted Eagle
Imperial Eagle
Lesser Kestrel
Sociable Lapwing

Conservation Dependent: Dalmatian Pelican

Near-Threatened: Pygmy Cormorant
Ferruginous Duck
White-tailed Eagle
Pallid Harrier
Houbara Bustard
Basra Reed-warbler
Cinerous Bunting
Syrian Serin

List of Endemic and Near-Endemic marshland species present in Iraq

Basra Reed-warbler
Grey Hypocolius
Iraq Babbler

List of Endemic and Near-Endemic marshland sub-species present in Iraq

Little Grebe
African Darter
Black Froncolin
White-eared Bulbul
Hooded Crow

List of seasonal migrants present in the Arabian Gulf during 1990-1991 Gulf War

Wood Sandpiper
Terek Sandpiper
Lesser Sand Plover
Little Ringed plover
Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Grey Plover
Little Stint
Curlew Sandpiper
Broad-billed Sandpiper
Bar-tailed Godwit
Swift Tern
Bridled Tern
Lesser Crested Tern
White-cheeked 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


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