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Environmental Impact of War in Iraq 2003 - A collection of related articles

1) Iraq oil field fires could be devastating [New Scientist]
2) Future looks bleak for Iraq's fragile environment [New Scientist]
3) Counting the cost of war [New Scientist]
4) Burning Oil Wells May Prove Less Damaging Than Thought [WSJ]
5) War or not, Iraq's environment a casualty [Reuters]


Iraq oil field fires could be devastating
18:51 20 March 03
Shaoni Bhattacharya
Copyright The New Scientist

Iraqi oil wells near the southern city of Basra may have been set alight, according to unconfirmed reports. If true, the consequences of such fires could be far worse than devastating effects of the Kuwaiti wells torched by retreating Iraqi forces in the 1991 war.

The Kuwaiti media reported eye-witness accounts of orange flames on the horizon near Basra on Thursday. Soon after, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said: "The Iraqi regime may have set fire to as many as three or four wells."

However, the Iraqi oil minister, Amir Muhammed Rasheed, vehemently denied the reports. "This report that was given to you is a film from the American gangs and is misleading and prejudiced," he told Reuters.

The UK Ministry of Defence was unable to confirm the fires. The US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said: "At this time, we do not know the extent of the damage to Iraqi wells or how many wells are currently affected."

Whether Thursday's reports are confirmed or not, many analysts say the Iraqi regime could set oil wells alight, either to hinder advancing US forces, or to thwart a perceived aim of the US-led invasion - to gain control of oil reserves.

The US military takes the threat seriously and has dropped propaganda leaflets with stern warnings against setting wells alight. Early capture of the oil fields is believed to be a key part of their war strategy.

High pressure

The setting alight of Iraq's oil wells would be catastrophic, experts agree. "There were about 700 wells set afire in Kuwait and it took about nine months to extinguish them all," said Bob Ebel, director of the energy program at the Washington thinktank, Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In Iraq there are quite a few more wells."

The main oil fields in Iraq, accounting for about two-thirds of Iraqi oil production, are the Rumaila oil field in the south, with about 1000 wells, and the Kirkuk oil field in the north, with about 500 wells.

The wells will be difficult to put out, Ebel told New Scientist: "The terrain, particularly in the north, is not flat, which means access is going to be difficult. You need also lots of water, and you need a nearby airstrip to bring in heavy equipment."

Furthermore, oil gushes out of Iraqi wells at greater pressure than those in Kuwait, particularly in the Basra region, says Paul Rogers, an expert on Middle East security at the University of Bradford, UK. "They therefore will be more difficult to extinguish."

Long-burning fires will have massive environmental consequences, according Ian Willmore, of Friends of the Earth. In Kuwait, at least 1000 people were killed as a direct result of air pollution, he told New Scientist.

Groundwater aquifers, which used to supply up to 40 per cent of Kuwait's freshwater, were also contaminated and still cannot be used. The total clean-up cost in the Gulf was estimated to be $40 billion, Willmore says.

Explosive charges

The US Department of Defense claims to have intelligence showing that Iraq has received 24 railroad boxcars of pentolite explosives, giving it the potential to destroy its oil wells. Reports of explosive charges set in Iraqi wells are also circulating, says Ebel.

At the beginning of March, the US government appointed oil services company Halliburton to oversee the fighting of oil well fires, and was seeking bids from specialist firefighting services.

Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, behind Saudi Arabia. It has 112 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, with roughly 220 billion barrels of probable resources, said a recent US Department of Energy analysis.

However, the report in October 2002, added: "Iraq's true resource potential may be far greater than this as the country is relatively unexplored due to years of war and sanctions."

18:51 20 March 03


Future looks bleak for Iraq's fragile environment
12:30 15 March 03
Fred Pearce
Copyright The New Scientist

Even before it began, the 1991 war with Iraq was headlined as an environmental apocalypse. The allied forces would wreak their share of environmental damage, critics warned, but Saddam's actions would be devastating. His likely sabotage of Kuwaiti oil wells would produce the largest, most destructive oil spill ever. And according to the late US scientist Carl Sagan, smoke from burning wells would shroud the planet in soot, creating a "year without summer".

Sites of potential environmental damage

It did not happen quite like that, of course. Many fears turned out to be misplaced or inaccurate. Twelve years on, are we in a better position to judge how badly the environment would suffer in a new war with Iraq?

There is no official word on the matter. To date, no government or UN agency has assessed the environmental damage that might arise. This is odd, says Ian Willmore of Friends of the Earth. "Both the US and British governments argue that they have balanced the risks of invasion against those of not invading. The environment has to be part of that."

Environmental scientists and non-governmental organisations are also fighting shy of forecasts, but few doubt the impact will be dramatic. "The Gulf war showed that such conflicts have devastating effects on the environment, biodiversity and quality of life, long after the cessation of hostilities," says Michael Rands, chief executive of Cambridge-based conservation alliance BirdLife International.

Acid rain

In 1991, Saddam's retreating forces sabotaged more than 600 Kuwaiti oil wells, which burned for up to nine months. The fumes acidified rain and Kuwait City experienced darkness at noon.

Oil also spilled into the Gulf, creating the largest ever marine slick. It didn't wipe out marine life as some had predicted - partly thanks to $700 million spent on mopping it up and partly because the warm waters of the Gulf sped up the oil's natural breakdown. Even so, local prawn fisheries were damaged for years.

Probably the worst problem was one nobody foresaw. Some 60 million barrels of oil poured into the deserts of Kuwait and formed oil lakes covering 49 square kilometres. From there, the oil slowly percolated down into aquifers and has now poisoned 40 per cent of the underground water - in a country with less water per head than any other.

Could similar events unfold in Iraq over the coming months? Though Saddam has promised not to sabotage his country's wells, US officials claim oil fields have been booby-trapped. Regardless, the oilfields are likely to see intense fighting. If troops enter Iraq from Turkey, they will probably clash first with Iraqi forces amid the oil wells of Kirkuk. And those heading to Baghdad from the south will want to secure oilfields around the town of Basra as soon as they can.

If oil wells are set ablaze, they could do far more damage than that seen in 1991. Iraq has twice as much oil as Kuwait and many of the wells contain a lot of gas, making them harder to extinguish than those in Kuwait.

Refuelling site

The environmental damage would not be confined to Iraq. The shores of the Gulf, which will provide access for invading troops, are "one of the top five sites in the world for wader birds, and a key refuelling area for hundreds of thousands migrating water birds", according to BirdLife's Mike Evans.

While almost two-fifths of Iraq is desert, the UN Environment Programme says 33 Iraqi wetland areas are internationally important. A study by BirdLife for UNEP found these wetlands are particularly vulnerable to pollution from weapons, sabotaged oil wells and the destruction of chemical works.

Evans believes war in Iraq could spell the end for the Mesopotamian marshes on the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, once Iraq's most prized environmental asset. After the 1991 war, Saddam ejected opponents of his regime who had settled on the marshes by digging huge canals to divert the two rivers that supplied them with water.

These massive works, combined with Turkey's construction of dams upstream, have now dried out at least 90 per cent of the marshes, leading to the extinction of subspecies of otter and rat. Water buffalo, wild boar, foxes and water birds have vanished from the area. What remains of the fragile marshes, and the 20,000 people who still live off them, will lie right in the path of forces heading towards Baghdad from the south.

Brittle crust

Not all environmental damage will come from obvious sources, though. Convoys of heavy vehicles beating across the Iraqi desert will create their own damage. Much of the desert has a thin, brittle surface that protects it from erosion.

Movement of heavy machinery breaks up this crust, uncovering sand that may gradually form moving sand dunes. These can persist for hundreds of years. Kuwaiti geomorphologists say the 1991 war unleashed dunes that may one day engulf Kuwait City.

At particular risk of pollution are Iraq's rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates. These rivers will spread any pollution that seeps into them from bombed chemical plants and other factories. This could be compounded by damage to Iraq's infrastructure. Destruction of sewage-treatment works or their power supplies would mean more raw sewage entering the rivers.

With most people relying on river water for drinking, the health implications are serious. Cases of typhoid have already risen tenfold since 1991, largely due to dirty drinking water.

Iraqi officials say that if war breaks out, they expect to maintain 10 per cent of water supplies, but aid agencies say taps could run dry within just 12 hours of the first air strikes on Baghdad. Fearing the worst, the US-based humanitarian organisation CARE has ordered 60 rubber "bladders", each capable of holding 6000 litres of water for emergency distribution around Baghdad.

Smart bombs

The US military forces claim many of the environmental and humanitarian fears are unfounded. They argue "smart" bombs will help limit unnecessary damage. Not so, says Nicole Deller of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Washington DC: smart bombing can increase pollution, as demonstrated in 1999 in Serbia, when NATO bombed the Zastava car factory in Kragujevac causing major toxic releases.

Willmore agrees: "Targeting industrial and military sites such as armament factories and oil refineries is likely to lead to acute chemical pollution," he says. "The UK government has named nine sites in Iraq as involved in the production of biological and chemical agents. It can be assumed that these would be early targets for air strikes."

Another threat comes from depleted uranium, the super-dense radioactive metal used in the tips of armour-piercing rounds. The 1991 conflict spread around 250 tonnes of DU across Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, often in tiny fragments. Nobody really knows how dangerous DU residues are, but data from a recent UNEP visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina reveals that DU has left "significant radiological hot spots" across the country.

Linking health problems to war damage will always be controversial. While the US State Department attributes the "extraordinary rates of cancers, neurological diseases, birth defects and other illnesses" to the Iraqi regime's use of chemical weapons in southern Iraq, many local doctors blame DU.

Some say the environment and the people who depend on it will come off lightly this time because Bush wants the support of the Iraqi people once their leader has been toppled. But the scale and ferocity of the planned invasion makes that unlikely.

12:30 15 March 03


Counting the cost of war
19:00 29 January 03
Fred Pearce
Copyright The New Scientist

War in Iraq will not be like war in Kuwait. The latter conflict threw out Iraqi invaders who could live to fight another day. Now that day seems imminent. Fighting on their own territory, Saddam's troops will have nowhere left to run. And they will face the technological superiority of US-led forces.

MEDACT, a UK-based organisation of doctors set up to look at the health consequences of conflicts, puts the most likely death toll in a war with Iraq at between 10 000 and 50 000, half of them civilians. Most would die in a "battle for Baghdad", which would likely involve carpet-bombing and street-by-street fighting that could go on for some time.

MEDACT predicts that with some 80 000 core troops defending the Iraqi capital "occupation will be extremely difficult without causing numerous civilian causalities among its five million people."

But other phases of the war could take major casualties, it says. These include the initial bombardment of military and communications infrastructure by high-precision but still lethal air assaults, the likely land invasions in both the south and the Kurdish north, and any final "scorched earth" policy as Saddam flees.

"This will not be another Vietnam, but casualties could be significantly greater on all sides that in the 1991 Gulf War," agrees Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

And weapons of mass destruction would make matters much worse. Iraqi chemical, biological or nuclear weapons could kill anything up to 20 000 people, MEDACT warns. Aid agencies have said they are "completely unprepared" for the consequences of a chemical attack.

A "worst case" figure of half a million dead is possible, MEDACT says, if the body-count includes post-war famines; if a protracted war causes oil prices to soar and trigger global recession; and if an Iraqi strike against Israel brings possible nuclear retaliation on Baghdad.

Environmental issues may also be significant. As a final gesture of defiance, Saddam might sabotage Iraqi oil wells - either detonating or booby-trapping them with radioactive or chemical materials. Fears at the time of the Kuwait conflict that smoke from burning wells could impact on global climate proved far-fetched. But local smog impacts could still be serious. And many Iraqi wells contain gas at pressure, so fires would be much harder to put out even than those in Kuwait.

During the last Gulf War, oil spills permanently damaged 350 square kilometres of Kuwaiti desert by creating a hard crust of sand and oil, according to a Kuwaiti report to the UN. The digging of trenches and the heavy machinery of war created sand dunes that could still be moving across the desert in hundreds of years' time.

There are also concerns about the long-term effects of depleted uranium from munitions used in air bombardments or heavy artillery attacks. The toxicological potential of this military fallout is still disputed, but potentially serious

Iraq is one of the original cradles of civilisation and contains some of our greatest archaeological treasures. They include Ur, among the earliest cities in the world, which lies close to a major airbase at Tallil. Bombing is not the only threat. "In southern Iraq, the highest ground is often on top of archaeological sites. If you have bulldozers creating earthworks on these sites, that's going to destroy things," says John Malcolm Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art.

Warfare also creates the kind of chaos where ethnic strife can thrive. After Saddam's fall, simmering disputes between Kurds, Tajiks and Arabs "will unleash latent, uncontrollable forces," triggering civil war that might spread to neighbouring countries, warns Faleh a Jabar, a political scientist at Birkbeck College, London.

And terrorist groups can prosper amid such lawlessness, either joining the fighting or gathering arms. Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington warned last autumn that both weapons and the scientists who develop them could slip out of Iraq and into the murky world of terrorism.

Besides arms, Al-Qaida might also win hearts and minds. Few Iraqi civilians may mourn Saddam's departure, and as a secular leader, he is no friend of fundamentalist Muslims. But large-scale civilian casualties may anger many ordinary Arabs. That could nourish anti-Western feeling in the Middle East and act as a recruiting call for future terrorists. Might bin Laden be the unlikely beneficiary of a war with Iraq?

19:00 29 January 03


March 21, 2003 12:17 a.m. EST
Copyright The Wall Street Journal


Burning Oil Wells May Prove
Less Damaging Than Thought

The predictions were chilling: As retreating Iraqi forces blew up an estimated 732 Kuwaiti oil wells at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, some high-profile scientists, led by the late Carl Sagan, warned that the infernos could produce a pall of black soot that would reach the stratosphere, circle the planet and remain aloft long enough to trigger a mini-nuclear winter.

Summer daytime temperatures in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent downwind could plunge 18 degrees to 36 degrees Fahrenheit, they warned; the Indian monsoons could fail, devastating agriculture and entire ecosystems.

The wells burning horizon to horizon that February looked like an apocalypse. But even before the last fire was ceremonially extinguished by the emir of Kuwait on Nov. 6, 1991, reality had, thankfully, fallen short of the forecast climatic cataclysm.

With America and its allies again at war with Iraq, and a handful of wells already burning in southern Iraq, the hellfighters who battle oil-field blazes are on call -- and scientists who study oil fires are analyzing what would happen if Saddam ordered most of Iraq's oil wells torched.

In May 1991, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Nuclear Agency -- driven by the nuclear-winter warnings -- dispatched a team of researchers to Kuwait.

"Sometimes the smoke was so thick the instruments couldn't even penetrate," recalls atmospheric scientist Lawrence Radke, co-leader of the project at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. "Less than 1% of the sun's visible light penetrated plumes. As we flew through, it got black as night, as if the sun had gone out."

For the scientists, every flight was like a car wash from hell. "There was raw, uncombusted oil in the plumes because the burning was so inefficient," says NCAR's Bruce Morley. "The first time I flew through one, the plane returned black with oil."

After that, though, almost nothing was as advertised, starting with the color of the plumes. "We expected a sooty, pitch-black smoke," Mr. Radke says, "so on the first mission, when I saw white plumes rising from pools of burning oil, you could have knocked me over with a feather." The Kuwaiti oil, it turned out, had a high content of salt water. About 25% of the plumes were white or dove gray, due to the high concentrations of sodium chloride and calcium chloride crystals in the smoke.

Scientists had expected the plumes to rise to the top of the "planetary boundary layer," about 10,000 feet up, where smog and other pollutants stabilize. According to the atmospheric models, sunshine would heat the black soot, making it rise farther through a process called self-lofting, as Mr. Radke had documented in studies of wildfires and oil fires.

If that happened, the black particles would rise high enough to elude the atmosphere's normal self-cleaning mechanism (precipitation), remaining aloft for months or even years -- the nuclear-winter nightmare.

Instead, a temperature inversion rode to the rescue. Just as the famous inversion in southern California confines air pollution there, the one in the Gulf "was strong enough to keep the smoke in lower parts of the atmosphere where it couldn't cause global damage," Mr. Radke says.

The plumes never rose above 3.6 miles, even after traveling 1,000 miles in 48 hours. Inversion is typical of the Gulf region, so the same lid effect should confine smoke from the current Iraqi oil fires to the lower atmosphere, where it can't trigger a climate catastrophe.

Because oily droplets are hydrophobic (they don't mix with water), worst-case models predicted the smoke plumes would be immune to "cloud scavenging," or removal by precipitation.

"We all expected the plumes to not be very good at making clouds," Mr. Morley says. "But the soot particles had a lot of sulfate mixed in, which makes them able to absorb water. A smoke plume would be going through a raincloud, and instead of coming out the other side it disappeared."

Because of all the salt and sulfur in the plumes, many of the particles acted like cloud-condensation nuclei, which seed the formation of raindrops when they encounter a cloud. Polar Orbiter, a weather satellite, and Landsat, which images terrain, already were seeing hints that the plumes would succumb to clouds.

"They'd show a black plume in a corner of the Gulf, shaped like an exclamation point, but it would disappear by the time it got to the Indian Ocean," Mr. Radke says. "Because of the sulfur, even these huge fires produce aerosols that could be removed by atmospheric processes: 10 days and it's over."

Oil contains sulfur because the long-dead animals and plants from which petroleum forms do. "Sour" crude contains more sulfur than "sweet." The Kuwaiti wells produce crude with a sulfur content of 2.5% or more, according to the Energy Information Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Energy. Iraq's northern Kirkuk field yields oil with just over 2% sulfur, the EIA says, while crudes from the southern Rumaila field vary from just under 2% to 3.4%. So, some Iraqi oil is more likely than Kuwait's to precipitate out harmlessly, while some poses a greater climatic threat if ignited. If we're lucky, we won't find out the effects of turning Iraq's oil fields into sooty infernos.

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Updated March 21, 2003 12:17 a.m.


War or not, Iraq's environment a casualty
Tuesday, 18 March 2003
Alister Doyle
Copyright Reuters

Scarred by the 1991 Gulf War and decades of mismanagement under Saddam Hussein, the environment will suffer whether or not the U.S. leads a war against Iraq, experts say.

Farming in Kuwait is still struggling after Iraqi forces torched about 700 Kuwaiti oil wells at the end of the Gulf War, creating a toxic black shroud over the region in one of the most destructive acts of ecological sabotage in history.

Temperatures fell, Gulf fisheries collapsed and fresh water supplies were poisoned by fires and giant oil slicks, extending human suffering long after the end of a war in which more than 100,000 people died.

And under Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, environmentalists widely criticise schemes to drain marshlands at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, displacing hundreds of thousands of Marsh Arabs and causing partial desertification.

The environmental impact of any U.S.-led war to rid Iraq of alleged chemical and biological arms can only be guessed at, but 1991 is a worrying precedent. Saddam says Baghdad will not ignite oil wells and has no weapons of mass destruction.

"The environment of Iraq is already cause for serious concern," said Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, which plans a study of Iraq's battered environment whether there is a war or not. "Over the last few decades, there has been damage to the life support system as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War and internal projects such as the drainage of parts of the marshlands."

The bandicoot rat and a type of smooth-coated otter, once indigenous to the marshlands, are now thought extinct. Nuttall said that U.N. agency wanted to halt and reverse the drainage of the marshes.

"The worst thing about war is that it kills people," said Jonathan Lash, head of the Washington-based World Resources Institute, an independent think tank. "But there is also huge potential for environmental damage.

"In the Gulf War, Iraqi forces ignited 600 to 700 oil wells, creating a column of smoke that could be seen from space," he added. "Iraq has about 2,000 oil wells, is more densely populated and has more agriculture than Kuwait."

Even so, he said Gulf fisheries had rebounded more quickly than expected since the 1991 conflict. About 25,000 birds were killed by oil in 1991, and any new war in coming weeks would disrupt migration routes for birds like pelicans and storks.

Collapse of electricity supplies in parts of Iraq after the Gulf War led to deforestration as people felled trees. And disruption of fresh water supplies helped spread diseases. The U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF, said that mortality of children under five more than doubled to 131 per 1,000 live births in the five years to 1999. It said that war and U.N. sanctions on Iraq were partly to blame.

And the U.S. military said that it would hit Iraqi tanks in any new war with depleted uranium ammunition, used in the Gulf War to destroy Iraqi armour and said by critics to cause cancer. U.S. defence officials say the uranium is not a health hazard.

War in Iraq is likely to begin within days. The U.S. and a number of key allies, including Australia, have committed forces to try and topple the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein over repeated violations of an armistice signed at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Alister Doyle - Reuters





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