When the air war phase of Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation began on 17 January, 1991, there were already reports of oil wells being set ablaze by the Iraqi army. A week later came reports of a massive oil slick in the Arabian Gulf formed as a result of Iraqi troops opening oil pipes at Kuwait’s Sea Island terminal directly into the waters.
At its height, the oil slick extended over an area of 10,000 square km with anywhere between 500,000 to 750,000 cubic meters of oil believed to have been spilled into the Gulf. By the time of Kuwait’s liberation on 26 February, nearly 800 flaming oil wells were spewing thick dark fumes of smoke and soot into the atmosphere, obliterating sunlight and often turning mid-afternoons into pitch darkness.
It was estimated that nearly six million barrels of oil were burning per day by March 1991. The amount of soot generated was of special concern as one gram of soot could block out two-thirds of the light falling over an area of eight to ten square meters and at its height the smoke and soot absorbed 75 to 80 percent of the sun’s radiation. A more detailed study conducted a year later, revealed that the oil fires produced almost 3,400 metric tons of soot per day. Also, the smoke particles rose to a height of over six kilometers and covered a distance of more than 1,600 kilometers, spreading ecological devastation to a much wider area.
By November 1991, the last of the burning oil wells had been capped and the immediate dangers of the oil spilled into the Gulf had been contained. However, the enormous damage to the biodiversity and ecology of land and sea in Kuwait, and to the marine environment of other littoral states in the Gulf, were only beginning to be assessed.
The presence of nearly 250 oil lakes created by the spillage of between 25 to 50 million barrels of unburned oil on land, and the semi-asphalt surfaces created by the mixture of nearly 40 million tons of sand and oil residue, left nearly five percent Kuwait’s land area totally uninhabitable to any life forms. Kuwait’s meager ground water resources were also believed to have been affected by oil seeping down into these reservoirs. Meanwhile, the marine environment and the fishing industry in the Gulf were deleteriously impacted by the oil that was spilled into the Gulf waters.
Recognizing the unprecedented damage to the environment, the United Nations Security Council affirmed that Iraq was liable under international law "for any direct loss, damage, including environmental damage and the depletion of natural resources, or injury to foreign Governments, nationals and corporations, as a result of Iraq’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait.” Approximately US$4.3 billion was awarded by the UNCC to the Governments of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the State of Kuwait and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in relation to environmental remediation and restoration claims.
It is significant that environmental damages have been quantified and appropriate restitution made. But, it is equally important that the full extent of the conflict’s impact on the physical and mental health of people and its long-term effect on the biodiversity of the land and marine environments should be fully measured and accurately understood. Perhaps, this information will help policymakers in the GCC states, as well as in Iran and Iraq, realize the full ramifications of another conflict in the region — not just to their own people and habitat, but also its cumulative effect on our global village.