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Black desert

The following article seemed to me to be too long to include in the weekly
News, but I think it has its own importance, so I send it separately ­ PB,4273,4051724,00.html
THE BLACK DESERT (The Guardian ­ Society section)

Brian Whitaker, August 16, 2000

In the blazing heat of the desert, a lake ought be a welcome sight. But this
lake has no palm trees around its edges, no camels watering. The sand here
is a dark, sticky brown, turning to black at the lake's fringes. The smell
is foul.

On the far side, an abandoned Iraqi tank stands as a reminder of how this
lake, in Kuwait's Burgan oilfield, and around 320 others like it, came into
existence. During the Gulf war, occupying Iraqi forces released more than
60m barrels of oil on to the sands, forming lakes as deep as a swimming pool
in places.

Ten years on, they are still there. The Kuwaitis have pumped out a third of
the oil, reducing the lakes to a shallow sludge. But the rest has sunk into
the ground, five to six metres deep. As years go by, the oil continues to
creep between the sand particles, contaminating more and more land.

The Kuwaitis estimate that the cost of putting it right will be about $1bn,
but oil-polluted earth has never been treated on this scale before and
techniques are still in their infancy. A conference to discuss the options
will be held in a few months. Dr Mohammed al-Sarawi, head of Kuwait's
environment public authority, is hopeful that a Japanese bio-remediation
method, which uses bacteria to break down the oil, will prove effective.
Whatever is done, it will take time.

Almost two years ago, Green Cross International, the Swiss-based
organisation which monitors the environmental effects of war, reported that
the situation was becoming urgent. "In a few years, it will be too late to
remedy the desert because the volume of contaminated sand will be too
large", it warned. "The desert will be contaminated forever."

Green Cross suggested that to prevent further contamination, about 50m cubic
metres of earth should be dug out an/Ęż)ê0/Ästorage unti, ęsolution
could be found. Even that is likely to be hazardous: there are still some
Iraqi landmines in and around the lakes.

It is not just a matter of restoring the land to its natural state: Kuwait's
water supply is also affected, and several water wells have already been
shut down because of oil seepage.

Kuwait depends heavily on desalinated seawater, but it also uses fresh
groundwater from the south, and adds some brackish groundwater to the
distilled seawater to give it flavour. According to Green Cross, one aquifer
representing 40% of the fresh water reserves has been contaminated.

The oil lakes, together with the 720 oil wells set on fire at the end of the
war, were partly aimed at damaging Kuwait's economy - a gesture of spite by
the fleeing Iraqis. But oil was also used as a weapon. The Iraqis thought
the allies might attempt a landing in Kuwait from the sea, and poured an
estimated eight to 11m barrels into the sea as a deterrent. This was about
six times larger than the Amoco Cadiz disaster - the world's previous
largest oil spill - and some 1,500 kilometres of Gulf coastline were
polluted as a result.

As a further defensive measure, the Iraqis moored four supertankers, each
containing a million barrels, in the bay off Kuwait. These were fitted with
special taps so they could pour out the oil if an attack came via the sea.
Further north, towards Iraq, they sank 150 small boats in shallow waters of
the fish breeding grounds to hamper navigation.

The end of the war brought a huge clean-up operation, and the oil fires were
finally extinguished after 258 days. But some of the problems caused by this
environmental warfare are only now becoming apparent.

While the fires burned, a thick cloud of black smoke, carrying soot and
toxic gases, hung over Kuwait, making it so dark that cars had to use their
headlights even at midday. Huge areas are still covered in soot and doctors
report increased cases of asthma, allergies and eye irritation.

The burning oil gave off aromatic hydrocarbons which can cause cancer. Dr
Abdullah al Hammadi, who runs a government clinic specialising in post-war
problems, believes that most of the population inhaled a toxic dose - though
it will take another five to 10 years before the effect is known.

The desert in Kuwait consists mainly of hard-packed sand and stones, giving
it a firm, stable surface, though there are smaller areas of sand dunes.
According to Sarawi, the area covered by dunes normally fluctuates by 10-15%
but has more than doubled in size since the war. "We have also had a record
number of dust storms over the last five to six years," he says.

Although such dramatic changes are usually due to climate change, he
believes that in Kuwait they are a result of the war. During the war, the
Iraqis drove a corridor across the desert from the north-west to the
south-east, and the movement of hundreds of tanks broke up the surface.
Because the desert supports so little life, it is especially susceptible to
damage. "The top layer of the ecosystem is very fragile," says Sarawi.

On the wall in Sarawi's office is a photograph which, at first glance,
appears to show a buttercup meadow. It is, in fact, a stretch of desert in
full bloom a few weeks after rain has fallen. The seeds for these plants lie
dormant, normally just below the surface, but the drifting sand has begun to
cover them to depths which prevent them from growing.

Unlike the desert, the sea has a remarkable capacity for recovery. Seven
years after the war, the coral reefs seemed healthy and shrimp catches were
back to normal. But then another problem appeared. Last year, huge numbers
of fish suddenly died - the Kuwaitis estimated some 400-500 tonnes. Tests on
the fish found no toxins, and scientists concluded that they had died from
lack of oxygen in the water, caused by an explosive growth of

High temperatures may have played a part, but the most likely explanation is
an abnormally high level of nutrients in the water. The Kuwaitis suspect
that the draining of Iraq's southern marshes, carried out by Saddam Hussein
for reasons of political control over the area, is to blame. Previously the
marshes acted as a filter for fertilisers washed down from further north in
Iraq, but now there are no marshes to remove them, these nutrients pass
straight into the sea. This encourages algae blooms which use all the oxygen
and kill normal life.

The waters at the head of the Gulf are a major breeding ground for fish from
as far away as the Indian Ocean. Millions of people in the Gulf and Asia
depend on them for food, as do fishermen for their livelihood.

The Gulf war may be over, but Saddam's war against the environment

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