Eco-Apocalypse Now

Against the Current, No. 31, March/April 1991

Richard Latker

ECOLOGICAL DAMAGE seems trivial, in immediate terms, compared to the direct loss of human lives in combat. Further probing of the environmental effects of war nonetheless shows hidden costs that degrade the quality of life far into the future. The U.S. and Iraqi war machines could deliver a mortal insult to the already ailing and fragile ecology of the Persian Gulf area.

The image of vast expanses of lifeless, baked hardpans in the Arabian Desert may not elicit much concern for the environment. Everything seems dead. But while a harsh and unforgiving environment, the subtropical desert and arid steppes of the region host a thriving complexity of life, a strict interdependence of species forming an elaborate food chain.

Iraq is blessed with the fertile, moist floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates—the cradle of civilization. The gulf itself is a rich but fragile marine eco-system, characterized by a unique set of life forms maintain in a precarious balance between the plant and animal life and the environment.

A Toxic Holocaust?

The most serious ecological threat posed by the war is the destruction of the massive oil facilities that ring the western half of the Persian Gulf. This poses the risk of immense, uncontrollable fires billowing millions of tons of toxic smoke into the atmosphere and spillage of countless barrels of oil and petrochemicals.

In March 1983, Iraqi fighters attacked the Nowruz Iranian oil facility near Kharg Island, which was already leaking. For seven months 5,000 barrels of oil a day flowed into the gulf until the spills were finally capped. Tankers, oil refineries and petrochemical factories in the area used the spill as a screen to dump their waste into the sea. The entire gulf population of fifty-three dugongs (sea cows), a highly intelligent and endangered marine mammal similar to the American Manatee, was wiped out. The shrimp industry—annually producing 250,000 tons—was shut down. Snapper and sea bass caught by traditional fishermen showed deadly levels of petroleum contamination.

Rare green and hawksbill sea turtles, sea snakes, and thousands of other air-breathing vertebrates washed up on oiled beaches. The remnants of a once vast network of living coral reefs along the western shores of the gulf were nearly exterminated.

The resulting slick—visible from satellite—extended the gulf’s full 1,000 kilometer length. And the light crude oil that characterizes gulf reserves rapidly shed its lower molecular weight compounds. Residual tar mats (up to four kilometers in length) sank to the sea floor, suffocating the organisms underneath.

Mangrove swamps and shallow estuaries—the nurseries of the fishing industry—were heavily oiled around the gulf’s entire perimeter. Massive desalinization plants, which provide up to ninety percent of the region’s drinking water (about a billion liters a day), had to be shut down to prevent clogging and poisoning by the floating oil.

The quantity of oil gushing into the gulf from this war could certainly dwarf that of the Nowruz spill. The gulf is extremely saline and shallow, with an average depth of only 115 feet. The Tigris and Euphrates, already heavily drawn down and polluted, are the gulf’s only source of fresh water The narrow Straits of Hormuz severely restrict circulation and flushing of gulf waters, reducing their capacity to mix and dilute oil.

A Crossroads of Death

Kuwait is on a crossroads of two major migratory routes, serving at least 280 different species of birds, some from as far away as the Arctic Circle. Many, like the red-throated Pipit and the white-tailed Plover, frequent the many freshwater pools that appear in the spring. This year the birds will find miles of trenches instead of pools. Some have been filled with thousands of barrels of burning fuel oil used to stop attacking tanks. The oil will have percolated deep into the surrounding sands, poisoning the ancient shrubs, dormant eggs and seeds, and small rodents and reptiles at the base of the food chain.

The rain waters that collect in the trenches will glisten with oily, toxic residue, rendering the flocking visitors ill and flightless. The lizards, toads, and snakes unlucky enough to hatch in the vicinity will also be lured to a miserable death.

The effect on the global atmosphere would be similarly sobering. In an Address to the World Climate Conference in Geneva last November 6, King Hussein of Jordan spelled out the risks clearly:

“If half of Kuwait’s oil reserves—about fifty billion barrels—were to go up in flames, the impact would be swift, severe and devastating. It would blacken the skies over a radius of at least 750 kilometers from Kuwait—all of Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE. The emission of carbon dioxide will increase by a factor of 100 over the current global emission of 5.5 billion tons per year. Lingering in the atmosphere for years, this would promote the greenhouse effect, with its effects on climate, food production and ecological health.”

In the desert, survival strategies depend on the ability to conserve water and withstand withering temperature extremes. Trapped just out of range of both equatorial rainfall belt and the moist, temperate climes to the north, rainfall in the area is limited and precious.

While desert plant life is exquisitely adapted to the heat, dust and dryness of the region, these plants cannot withstand the impact of heavy vehicles. Miles of vegetation has already been crushed by the 10,000 or so tanks already in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Through compaction and soil disruption, vehicles crush root systems, or expose their precious cache of moisture to the desert sun. Previously aerated soil becomes a kilned, impervious boilerplate incapable of absorbing moisture for seeds. A single pass of a light passenger car can leave -a permanent track through the steppe. Armored tanks and personnel carriers leave huge, lifeless swaths.

Forty years after Rommel and Montgomery rumbled their tanks through the North Africa desert, only thirty-five percent of the vegetation cover has regenerated. Extraordinarily large dust storms accompanied the desert battles of World War II Devegetated, the disturbed areas generated dust storms with winds half as powerful as those normally required.

Desert frogs survive by spending most of their lives in burrows, emerging only to the sound of sustained rainfall—or motor vehicle engines. Misled to surface by engine noise, their frantic search for the phantom waters ends in cruel death through exposure.

The noise also interferes with environmental sounds critical for predator prey interactions—swooping owls, insect rustling, etc. While noise pollution may seem a ludicrous concern to the planners of war, entire breeding cycles rely on a reasonably quiet environment.

Nukes and Nerve Gas

Although the Iraqis have failed to develop a nuclear weapon, the Americans have made it clear they will target uranium mines and processing centers in northern and western Iraq. While information on the actual quantity of uranium mined and refined in Iraq remains obscure, pulverized radioactive ores spreading through the region in thick black plums probably wouldn’t pass an environmental impact statement.

Finally, armies are notoriously sloppy in the way they handle their own waste. Using the ruse of “national security,” the U.S. military evades the most basic environmental precautions here in the United States. As of mid-December they had not set up a sewage treatment program for the hundreds of thousands of troop soldiers invading the desert coastline.

The mammoth pre-war beach assault exercise dubbed “Operation Imminent Thunder” resulted in substantial erosion of the sandy shores of northeastern Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon is tight-lipped about the sources of water for the operation, but one can assume they are plundering the ancient, irreplaceable deep water aquifers of the desert.

One would think that if the true costs of waging a Middle East war (of which environmental catastrophe is just one component) were dispassionately examined, war would be deemed unacceptable by all. Unfortunately, there are those who stand to benefit.

March-April 1991, ATC 31