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Gulf Fires Are Out, But Disaster Remains

By Saul Bloom and Ross MirkarimiSaul Bloom is the director of ARC/Arms Control Research Center. Ross Mirkarimi is ARC's Persian Gulf war campaign coordinator. / February 7, 1992



WITH the oil-well fires now extinguished in Kuwait, there is a danger that the international community will feel less urgency in maintaining an ongoing response to the environmental problems in the region.

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This complacency is not entirely undesired or discouraged. A number of the parties involved in the war are anxious to put the environment behind them. But, sadly, much more remains to be done to restore the regional environment to its former level.

Reports indicate that a number of the 749 extinguished wells are as yet uncapped and spraying huge plumes of oil into the air. The United States government reviewed the potential impacts of oil fire and spray before combat began last year. According to a January 1991 report by Sandia National Laboratory, the airborne toxins from the fires and gushing oil could increase "mortality in a small but sensitive population from inhalation of sulfur dioxide and particulates." Sensitive populations include people with various respiratory problems.

Shallow oil lakes now dot the Kuwait desert, occasionally flowing together to form rivers of oil that stretch for miles. Migrating birds mistake the oil for water. Raptors swoop in on floundering prey only to become caught in the oil themselves. Conservation groups estimate that perhaps a million birds will die in the oil lakes of Kuwait. The oil in the lakes seeps down through the sand to contaminate groundwater and may overflow into the Gulf during the coming rainy season.

Unexploded bombs are a violent legacy of the war. The coalition dropped over 88,000 tons of ordinance on the combat zone. As much as 20 percent may have not exploded. These hidden bombs now lie waiting for animals, bedouins, and urban dwellers alike. Shards of depleted uranium armor-piercing shells pepper the desert. It is not yet certain what impact the constant low-level radiation from the shards will have on people and animals.

Of all the environmentally damaged states in the Gulf region, the least is known about Iraq, despite numerous international missions to that country.

It is known that as many as 170,000 children under five could die within a year from malnutrition and disease. According to a report from the Harvard study team in Iraq last September, these children will die "from the delayed effects of the Gulf Crisis.... The immediate cause of death in most cases will be waterborne infectious disease in combination with severe malnutrition."

The Arms Control Research Center provided the environmental analysts for the most recent Harvard team investigation of the war's impacts on Iraq. We were able to make some assessments about the agricultural impacts and waterborne diseases, but we were only able to make some preliminary observations of the impact of bombing industrial facilities. Another major issue we were not able to investigate was the effect of the bombing of Iraq's chemical, biological, and nuclear installations.

SOME interests both in the region and outside of it work against keeping its environmental crisis on the front burner.

The government of Kuwait, for example, is eager to see the repatriation of its nationals. Publicizing the environmental pall doesn't help matters. Saddam Hussein wants to show his people and the world that Iraq survived and is coming back from its trouncing. A return to "normalcy" in Baghdad is key to his remaining in power.

The US and its coalition partners would rather the issue went away because of its implications for future wars. The environment is an international issue. It brought new people into the antiwar movement.

The federal government was so concerned about the negative public relations that it prepared an environmental assessment of the war. That assessment raises disturbing questions regarding violation of a protocol of the Geneva Convention of 1949, which states, "It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended to, or may be expected to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment." Both Saddam and the coalition appear guilty.

One way the international community can respond to these problems is by implementing United Nations Resolution 44/224, approved in late 1989. This resolution created a UN Center for Urgent Environmental Assistance to "strengthen international cooperation in monitoring, assessing or anticipating environmental threats."

Contacts in the UN indicate that US concern regarding the public's perception of war and environmental crisis is a principle stumbling block to implementation.

Another thing we can do: Amend the sanctions against Iraq. Iraq is paying the price for the war. If a post-Hussein Iraq is to be rehabilitated, its people and environment must be treated mercifully while the UN strips the current regime of its weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi civilians, especially children, must not be sacrificed because of a government over which they have no control. The international community should beware sowing the seeds of Iraqi disaffection so deeply that this war could be a pr elude to an even greater one later.

Attending to the region's environment now could have an immediate and long-lasting positive impact. One cannot wage war and escape responsibility for its aftermath. It is ultimately a matter of paying now or paying later.