More than a decade after Iraqi troops set fire to oil wells in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, the environment remains in distress. Millions of barrels of crude oil still sit in oil lakes in the desert, preventing re-growth of habitat, polluting underground aquifers and sickening animals. Heavy metals continue to pollute the soil and sea. Anne Marie Ruff reports.
CURWOOD: During the first Gulf War, coalition forces drove Iraq out of Kuwait, the oil-rich nation Saddam Hussein invaded in August of 1990. As the Iraqis withdrew they set fire to Kuwait's many oil wells. Scientists estimate at least one-third of Kuwait's land was damaged by soot and oil that pooled into lakes in the desert and the sea. As Anne Marie Ruff reports, Kuwait is still trying to recover.
RUFF: The city of Ahmedy in Southern Kuwait is a company town. It was built in the 1940s to house employees of the Kuwait Oil Corporation. It was the first western-style city in the country.
Tree-lined streets and rows of buildings rise up from the surrounding desert. On one hillside a brilliant garden blooms with wildflowers and desert grasses.
AL-ZALZALEH: We have atriplex plants, and we have a bottle brush tree there, and the most common tree now in Kuwait, we have the Cannus forbias…
RUFF: Hani Al-Zalzaleh strolls along a garden path, pointing at flowers, plants, and trees along the way. He's a horticulture scientist with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, a government-funded organization. Al-Zalzaleh proudly describes his team's experimental garden.
AL-ZALZALEH: This park is a unique kind of park, not only for the Gulf region, as well, like, you know, in the world.
RUFF: What is unique is that this garden's plants are thriving in soil that was once contaminated by oil. Al-Zalzaleh and his colleagues use naturally-occurring microbes to clean the soil.
The decontamination process is environmentally-friendly, but Al-Zalzaleh concedes it's probably too expensive and time-consuming to be used on a large scale. And the scale here is large. There are more than 200 lakes of oil in the desert, and more than 40 million tons of soil are contaminated with spilled oil and soot from the fires.
Ironically, extinguishing the fires exacerbated the damage, because firefighters used sea water. The salts in the water bonded with the heavy metals in the oil, creating toxic metal salts which are easily absorbed by plants, animals, and humans.
OMAR: These are deep, deep scars in the environment.
RUFF: Samira Omar is a Kuwaiti ecologist. She's been studying the effects of the Gulf War pollution for the last decade. She's seen animals mistake oil lakes for water lakes, only to become trapped in the sludge, and soot fallout create a crust on the ground that prevents native plants from returning.
She acknowledges that the Kuwaiti government responded quickly after the war, pumping up millions of barrels of oil from the desert floor to get the oil wells working again. She says that the environment needs that same kind of concerted effort.
OMAR: Even what activity we do is minor compared to the damage that occurred during the Iraqi invasion. It's going to take years and maybe generations for it to completely remove all these marks, to make it non-existent. It will be, in my opinion, impossible.
RUFF: The damage is not only limited to the land. Forty percent of the country's scarce underground aquifers are contaminated with oil, and the Kuwait Bay is threatened by heavy metals and other pollutants left over from the fires.
Lamya Hayat is a biochemist with Kuwait University. She believes that lingering pollution caused a 2,000-ton fish kill last summer.
HAYAT: We have two benthic fish, they are very well known and they are edible. That they are coming to the surface and they are opening their gills wide, going into circles. Their eyes are popped, their mouth is bleeding, and they die. And at that time, nobody was saying anything.
RUFF: She suspects that the fish died when a phosphate spill in the Arabian Gulf drifted into Kuwait Bay. When the phosphate mixed with heavy metals left in the water from the Gulf War, it created an especially potent poison.
But the government's story differs sharply from Lamya Hayat's. The Kuwait Environment Public Authority blames the fish kill on climatic conditions, such as especially high temperatures and low oxygen content in the water. Such reasoning angers Shukri Al-Hasham, an environmental activist in Kuwait. He thinks the government is in denial.
AL-HASHAM: There is no honest and sincere studies has been done after the liberation of Kuwait, unfortunately. So it's, all in all-- what I'm saying is that we do have the problem, we still have it, and we will have it for the nearest future until someone from the government says no, we have to stop it and give us all the experts in the world to fix it.
RUFF: Shukri has tried to organize like-minded Kuwaitis to spur the government into action on the environmental problems. But non-governmental organizations are forbidden in Kuwait. Instead, public opinion filters up to the government through weekly meetings called dewaniyas. These are men-only affairs where citizens and officials meet in the opulent homes of influential Kuwaitis, where they gossip and discuss politics.
[SEVERAL MEN TALKING IN ARABIC]
RUFF: At a dewaniya hosted by Faisal Al-Dosary, the spokesman for the Ministry of Health, the public health crisis is a hot topic. Government figures show that cancer rates have risen by 300 percent in the last decade.
[MAN SPEAKING ARABIC]
RUFF: Al-Dosary says the increase is due to better and earlier detection, but most of his guests are skeptical. They blame Gulf War pollution for the increase in cancer, along with a host of other illnesses, including asthma, neurological diseases, and skin rashes.
The Kuwaiti government wants Iraq to pay for the environmental damage and public health crisis. The Kuwait Public Authority is conducting a study to determine the environmental price tag. The five-year study is being funded by Iraq through a United Nations reparations fund to the tune of $108 million dollars.
Whatever the study determines, ecologist Samira Omar thinks it won't cover the true costs.
OMAR: The damage for us is priceless. I cannot put a price for it. It's permanent damage to nature. It's sad to say that. It's a great loss.
RUFF: And she says the longer the Kuwait government waits to clean up the environment, the greater those losses will be.
For Living on Earth, this is Anne Marie Ruff in Kuwait.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12, and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council.
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