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War in Iraq:  What's the Cost to the Environment? - 2003-03-27

Loss of human life is the most serious consequence of war. But the environment can also become a casualty and the ecological damage or contamination caused by armed conflict can linger long after peace accords are signed. More than a decade ago the Gulf War resulted in an environmental nightmare of burning oil wells, oil slicks and polluted croplands. But the present conflict in Iraq could be even more devastating.

When Iraqi soldiers retreated from Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991, they set fire to 600 oil wells. Towering pillars of fire and columns of smoke vented from the wells for eight months, spreading toxic fumes in all directions. The Iraqi military also unleashed the largest oil slick ever over lowlands and farms. Twenty-five thousand birds died, fisheries were degraded, and acid rain poisoned trees.

Despite this widespread destruction, the Persian Gulf rebounded faster than scientists had predicted, according to environmentalist Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

"People were afraid that the damage from the oil fields would be permanent. And in fact in the decade that has ensued, there is still some evidence of contamination and no one knows how long the toxins in the water column will remain, but because the water is relatively warm the natural process of cleanup went remarkably fast," he says. "The story with regard to Kuwaiti lands, and in particular agricultural lands, was not quite so good. There are still vast areas that are caked with hardened residue of oil vapor and carbon that has made agriculture difficult. The Kuwaitis say it killed about 80 percent of their livestock."

Mr. Lash says the situation in Iraq could be radically different, especially if Saddam Hussein initiates what he calls "a scorched earth" policy.

JL: "If Saddam Hussein's government chooses to ignite their oil fields and there is evidence that that is happening the oil fields are much larger than the Kuwaiti oil fields. They are distributed much more widely through Iraq through the southern regions that the alliance forces entered first all the way up to the north and in much more populated areas. So, the potential scale of the consequences is very great. Iraqis also depend on surface water for drinking water and there is a high risk of contamination of water supplies in this conflict."

RS: "So, what I hear you saying is that oil becomes a weapon because of the impact after these fields are ignited and what have you."

JL: "That is the risk. Not that it becomes a weapon, but it is intentionally used as a weapon. We are all used to thinking of environmental destruction as the unintended consequences of people's actions. This is a case in which environmental destruction is an intended consequence to interfere with advancing armies or even worse, to interfere with recovery afterwards."

RS: "How, under life and death pressures of armed conflict, can an army minimize the environmental impact of war?"

JL: "There have certainly been changes since the first Gulf War in terms of backing away from some of the munitions that appear to be most dangerous in the aftermath of the war. There certainly can be care taken not to destroy key infrastructure or water sources. Probably the most important step during the conflict is to be ready to act extremely quickly to respond to oil field fires or other measures of destruction, to have the equipment ready and if possible to use military force to prevent that kind of action."

RS: "What about when the war is over, what kind of plan [should be put in place] or should planning be going on during the war to protect the environment - the air, the water, the land that people depend on."

JL: "It seems strange to be speculating while the fighting is underway, but in fact planning has been underway for months to think about what will happen after the war. At some point there will be some kind of peace, and then the key issue after security will be to help Iraqis rebuild their lives. At that point the state of their environment will become a very important issue, where they get clean water, how quickly they can restore their agriculture, and begin supporting themselves, how extensively their health has been affected by the war and any environmental destruction. At that point, it will be very important for the cleanup to go quickly, for people to get information about the cleanup, what's happening, what the risks are.

For Iraqis to have the opportunity to participate in decisions that shape their environment, to make decisions about what the highest priorities are. It is interesting [to note that] as the former Soviet Union was collapsing, one of the first areas in which public participation was allowed in [that] totalitarian society was with regard to the environmental destruction that was invisible throughout the former Soviet Union. And here, too, there is an opportunity for Iraqis to participate in very immediate decisions that directly affect them as the cleanup begins.

The United Nations Environment Program announced last week that it has begun to study the environmental impact of the war in Iraq and plans to send a team into the country after the war to assess the situation and help mitigate any problems. The U.N. agency has done similar reports on environmental damage resulting from conflicts in Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Palestinian Territories. It recently examined the health effects of the depleted uranium that was released by the Balkans civil war.