Iraq’s Environmental Crisis
The ecological effects of war, like its horrific toll on human life, are exponential. When the Bush Administration and their Congressional allies sent our troops in to Iraq to topple Saddam’s regime, they not only ordered these men and women to commit crimes against humanity, they also commanded them to perpetrate crimes against nature.
The first Gulf War had a horrific effect on the environment, as CNN reported in 1999, "Iraq was responsible for intentionally releasing some 11 million barrels of oil into the Arabian Gulf from January to May 1991, oiling more than 800 miles of Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian coastline. The amount of oil released was categorized as 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and twice as large as the previous world record oil spill. The cost of cleanup has been estimated at more than $700 million."
During the build up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Saddam loyalists promised to light oil fields afire, hoping to expose what they claimed were the U.S.’s underlying motives for attacking their country: oil. The U.S. architects of the Iraq war surely knew this was a potential reality once they entered Baghdad in March of 2003. Hostilities in Kuwait resulted in the discharge of an estimated 7 million barrels of oil, culminating in the world’s largest oil spill in January of 1991. The United Nations later calculated that of Kuwait’s 1,330 active oil wells, half had been set ablaze. The pungent fumes and smoke from those dark billowing flames spread for hundreds of miles and had horrible effects on human and environmental health. Saddam Hussein was rightly denounced as a ferocious villain for ordering his retreating troops to destroy Kuwaiti oil fields.
However, the United States military was also responsible for much of the environmental devastation of the first Gulf War. In the early 1990s the U.S. drowned at least 80 crude oil ships to the bottom of the Persian Gulf, partly to uphold the U.N.’s economic sanctions against Iraq. Vast crude oil slicks formed, killing an unknown quantity of aquatic life and sea birds while wrecking havoc on local fishing and tourist communities.
Months of bombing during the first Gulf War by U.S. and British planes and cruise missiles also left behind an even more deadly and insidious legacy: tons of shell casings, bullets and bomb fragments laced with depleted uranium. In all, the U.S. hit Iraqi targets with more than 970 radioactive bombs and missiles.
More than 15 years later, the health consequences from this radioactive bombing campaign are beginning to come into focus. And they are dire. Iraqi physicians call it "the white death"-leukemia. Since 1990, the incident rate of leukemia in Iraq has grown by more than 600 percent. The situation was compounded by Iraq’s forced isolation and the sadistic sanctions regime, once described by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan as "a humanitarian crisis", that made detection and treatment of the cancers all the more difficult.
Most of the leukemia and cancer victims aren’t soldiers. They are civilians. Depleted uranium is a rather benign sounding name for uranium-238, the trace elements left behind when the fissionable material is extracted from uranium-235 for use in nuclear reactors and weapons. For decades, this waste was a radioactive nuisance, piling up at plutonium processing plants across the country. By the late 1980s there was nearly a billion tons of the material.
Then weapons designers at the Pentagon came up with a use for the tailings. They could be molded into bullets and bombs. The material was free and there was plenty at hand. Also uranium is a heavy metal, denser than lead. This makes it perfect for use in armor-penetrating weapons, designed to destroy tanks, armored-personnel carriers and bunkers.
When the tank-busting bombs explode, the depleted uranium oxidizes into microscopic fragments that float through the air like carcinogenic dust, carried on the desert winds for decades. The lethal bits when inhaled stick to the fibers of the lungs, and eventually begin to wreck havoc on the body in the form of tumors, hemorrhages, ravaged immune systems and leukemias.
It didn’t take long for medical teams in the region to detect cancer clusters near the bomb sites. The leukemia rate in Sarajevo, pummeled by American bombs in 1996, tripled in five years following the bombings. But it’s not just the Serbs who are ill and dying. NATO and U.N. peacekeepers in the region are also coming down with cancer.
The Pentagon has shuffled through a variety of rationales and excuses. First, the Defense Department shrugged off concerns about Depleted Uranium as wild conspiracy theories by peace activists, environmentalists and Iraqi propagandists. When the U.S.’s NATO allies demanded that the U.S. disclose the chemical and metallic properties of its munitions, the Pentagon refused. Depleted uranium has a half-life of more than 4 billion years, approximately the age of the Earth. Thousand of acres of land in the Balkans, Kuwait and southern Iraq have been contaminated forever.
Speaking of DU and other war-related disasters, former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said the environmental consequences of the Iraq war could in fact be more ominous than the issue of war and peace itself. Despite this stark admission, the U.S. made no public attempts to assess the environmental risks that the war would inflict.
Blix was right. On the second day of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq it was reported by the New York Times and the BBC that Iraqi forces had set fire to several of the country’s large oil wells. Five days later in the Rumaila oilfields, six dozen wellheads were set ablaze. The dense black smoke rose high in the southern sky of Iraq, fanning a clear signal that the U.S. invasion had again ignited an environmental tragedy. Shortly after the initial invasion the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) satellite data showed that a significant amount of toxic smoke had been emitted from burning oils wells. This smoldering oil was laced with poisonous chemicals such as mercury, sulfur and furans, which can causes serious damage to human as well as ecosystem health.
According to Friends of the Earth, the fallout from burning oil debris, like that of the first Gulf War, has created a toxic sea surface that has affected the health of birds and marine life. One area that has been greatly impacted is the Sea of Oman, which connects the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf byway of the Strait of Hormuz. This waterway is one of the most productive marine habitats in the world. In fact the Global Environment Fund contends that this region "plays a significant role in sustaining the life cycle of marine turtle populations in the whole North-Western Indo Pacific region." Of the world’s seven marine turtles, five are found in the Sea of Oman and four of those five are listed as "endangered" with the other listed as "threatened".
The future indeed looks bleak for the ecosystems and biodiversity of Iraq, but the consequences of the U.S. military invasion will not only be confined to the war stricken country. The Gulf shores, according to BirdLife’s Mike Evans, is "one of the top five sites in the world for wader birds, and a key refueling area for hundreds of thousands of migrating water birds." The U.N. Environment Program claims that 33 wetland areas in Iraq are of vital importance to the survival of various bird species. These wetlands, the U.N. claims, are also particularly vulnerable to pollution from munitions fallout as well as oil wells that have been sabotaged.
Mike Evans also maintains that the current Iraq war could destroy what’s left of the Mesopotamian marshes on the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Following the war of 1991 Saddam removed dissenters of his regime who had built homes in the marshes by digging large canals along the two rivers so that they would have access to their waters. Thousands of people were displaced. The communities ruined.
The construction of dams upstream on the once roaring Tigris and Euphrates has dried up more than 90 percent of the marshes and has led to extinction of several animals. Water buffalo, foxes, waterfowl and boar have disappeared. "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," wrote Fred Pearce in the New Scientist prior to Bush’s invasion in 2003. The true effect this war has had on these wetlands and its inhabitants is still not known.
The destruction of Iraqi’s infrastructure has had substantial public health implications as well. Bombed out industrial plants and factories have polluted ground water. The damage to sewage-treatment plants, with reports that raw sewage formed massive pools of muck in the streets of Baghdad immediately after Bush’s ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign, is also likely poisoning rivers as well as human life. Cases of typhoid among Iraqi citizens have risen tenfold since 1991, largely due to polluted drinking water.
That number has almost certainly increased more in the past few years following the ousting of Saddam. In fact during the 1990s, while Iraq was under sanctions, U.N. officials in Baghdad agreed that the root cause of child mortality and other health problems was no longer simply lack of food and medicine but the lack of clean water (freely available in all parts of the country prior to the first Gulf War) and of electrical power, which had predictable consequences for hospitals and water-pumping systems. Of the 21.9 percent of contracts vetoed as of mid-1999 by the U.N.’s U.S.-dominated sanctions committee, a high proportion were integral to the efforts to repair the failing water and sewage systems.
The real cumulative impact of U.S. military action in Iraq, past and present, won’t be known for years, perhaps decades, to come. Stopping this war now will not only save lives, it will also help to rescue what’s left of Iraq’s fragile environment.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. This essay will appear in Born Under a Bad Sky, to be published in December. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joshua Frank is the co-editor of DissidentVoice.org, and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the forthcoming Red State Rebels, to be published by AK Press in March 2008. He can be reached through his website, BrickBurner.org.