Kuwait conjures blooms out of oily blight

In the Kuwaiti town of Ahmedy, home to the Kuwait Oil Corp., a brilliant garden full of wildflowers and desert grasses blooms along a hillside. "This park is a unique kind of park, not only for the Gulf region, but in the whole world," says Hani Al-Zalzaleh, a horticultural scientist with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR).

Bougainvillea, bottlebrush trees, and salt bushes abound – even though they been planted in soil contaminated by oil spilled and burned as the retreating Iraqi Army set fire to more than 600 oil wells in 1991.

More than 10 years after the fires were extinguished, scientists from KISR have perfected a technique to clean up the soil using naturally occurring microbes. This process doesn't use chemicals or detergents, and yields a surprising benefit. When the microbes break down the oil, they leave a residue of hydrocarbons that act like fertilizers, making the reclaimed soil especially rich.

This fires-to-flowers story is one of the few bright spots in the environmental legacy of the Gulf War. Although the fires of Kuwait were extinguished in late 1991, the country still struggles with the legacy of hundreds of standing oil lakes in the desert, and the contamination of millions of cubic meters of soil and of 40 percent of the country's aquifers, as well as sea sediments drenched in heavy metals and other toxic pollutants.

"It's going to take years and maybe generations to remove these marks," says Samira Omar, an ecologist with KISR. "At this stage, these are deep, deep scars in the environment."

These scars prevent Kuwait's native plants and wildlife from returning, and they trap dozens of migratory bird species that mistake the oil lakes for water lakes. The environmental pollution is also taking its toll on public health.

Lamya Hayat, a biochemist at Kuwait University and outspoken critic of government environmental policy, blames the Gulf War pollution for an increase in cancer rates, a rise documented by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health.

"Statistically, there is a huge increase," says Ms. Hayat. "Until 1990, we had almost 50 cases of cancer per million people. Now it is in the range of 450 cases per million."

Hayat believes the health problems can be traced back to heavy metals, which were abundant in the smoke from the oil fires. When the fires were extinguished with sea water, the heavy metals bonded with sea salts, which made them easily absorbed by plants, animals, and humans. She suspects that a 2,000-ton fish kill last August was caused by a phosphate spill in the Arabian Gulf, which mixed with the heavy metals already in the sea – nickel and vanadium – to make an especially potent poison.

But the government's story differs sharply. Mohammed al-Sarawi, director general of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority, says the fish kill was not due to Gulf War pollution. "The cause was a combination of high temperatures in the water, high amounts of nitrates from sewage, red tides, and the presence of bacteria in the bay," he says. The level of heavy metals and hydrocarbons in the ocean was "normal," he adds.

Such reasoning angers Shukri al-Hasham, an environmental activist in Kuwait. He says the government is in denial about the country's environmental problems. "There have not been any honest or sincere pollution studies since liberation, not from the Ministry of Health or Environment, or the government," he says. Mr. Hasham has tried to organize likeminded Kuwaitis to spur the government into action, but most nongovernmental organizations are forbidden in Kuwait. Instead, public opinion filters up to the government through informal weekly meetings – men only – with officials and locals known as dewaniyas.

There is consensus at several Saturday dewaniyas that the pollution from the Iraqi invasion is a major problem. Khalifa al-Bahoo is an undersecretary for legislation in the Kuwaiti judicial department, and hosts his own dewaniya. "Of course, we feel the pollution. Everybody feels it," he says. "We need somebody to take care of this, to be serious."

The Kuwaiti oil fires were extinguished in nine months, several months sooner than Kuwaiti officials had predicted. But the slow environmental assessment and remedy troubles many Kuwaitis.

Environmentalist Hasham believes government corruption or ineptitude is to blame. Others say the government's first priority after invasion was justifiably defense and the economy.

A new environmental study may herald some progress. The United Nations Compensation Committee, which was set up after liberation, is giving the Kuwaiti government $108 million, taken from the Iraqi oil-for-food program, to fund a three- to five-year study of the environment.

The study may settle the controversy over what is causing cancer and fish kills in Kuwait, and it should help determine how much Kuwait will receive in reparations.

Another glimmer of hope is Kuwait's oil industry, which has been back in full swing for several years now, keeping Kuwait a rich country.

"We are a rich country and can afford to pay for cleanup," says Hasham. "But we will have these problems until someone from the government says, '... give us all the experts in the world to fix it.' "

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