Leaving a Mess in Mesopotamia


Raw sewage courses through canals and riverbeds. Toxic clouds from burning oil and smoldering buildings billow into the air, raining particles on the countryside. Heavy metals and a stew of chemicals from bombed industrial plants spill into the soil and pollute drinking-water supplies. Iraq doesn’t look as bad as a smoky Kuwait did in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, but Iraq’s air, land, and water have been battered in 2003, and some experts say more Iraqi civilians will die from post-war environmental problems than have been killed during the fighting.

Even before the end of the current war, the U.S. had started preparations to rebuild roads and airports, make water drinkable, and otherwise mitigate immediate public health hazards. But it hasn’t addressed the toxic soup left in the wake of the bombings. The Department of Defense has done no environmental assessment in Iraq of damage, cleanup requirements, or costs, acknowledged Glen Flood, a Pentagon spokesman.

Peter Zahler, a conservation biologist who supervised environmental assessment of Afghanistan as part of the Post-Conflict Assessment Unit of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), characterized the U.S. and its allies as “very unprepared” to deal with environmental damage.

Still lurking are such problems as unexploded ordnance—of the 20,000 bombs and missiles dropped in the first three weeks of this war, those that exploded drilled noxious fragments into the earth, but those that didn’t have turned benign backyards into potential death traps.

“Post-war environmental deaths may exceed direct civilian casualties,” said Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has helped foreign governments analyze the environmental impacts of U.S. military bases.

With scarce knowledge of what pollution remains from the 1991 war, and little data on what has been hit this time around, the salvage mission may require as much dexterity as the war plan.

“In a short-term war like this one,” said Zahler, “the major threats environmentally are mostly chemical.” With fewer than 10 oil wells ignited in Iraq and just a few of those still burning, Zahler speculates that the major remaining risks are “blown-up plants of any kind, transformers, and oil supply depots.” Among the possible dangers are carcinogenic PCBs leaking from the transformers or ammonia seeping out of damaged fertilizer plants.

Also threatening, Zahler and other experts said, is depleted uranium, a toxic and radioactive heavy metal used by U.S. and British forces as munitions to pierce tank armor and as part of the tanks themselves.

Experts and environmentalists have been clamoring for better appraisals and treatment plans for environmental damage since the 1991 war, but current plans for cleanup are limited to oil-well fires and spills, and infrastructure rebuilding. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has requested proposals from U.S. companies for eight contracts on projects ranging from repairing ports and airports to running schools. None address remediation of pollution from ordnance and bombed facilities.

“It’s unlikely that they’ll go ahead and do any of that cleanup,” Bloom said. “What they’ll most likely deal with post-war is a superficial cleanup of unexploded ordnance.” Bloom noted the Department of Defense’s historic resistance to dealing with pollution its own bases leave behind in the United States. “You have created a toxin-rich environment, and this environment is going to cause problems,” he said. “That’s why we’ve spent billions of dollars on cleaning of military bases in the U.S.”

The situation in Iraq is complicated by the presence of the depleted uranium. “We’ve done quite a lot of work on depleted uranium, and we just can’t be sure of its effects for people close to exploding munitions or for the people who handle it,” David Nabarro, executive director of Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments at the World Health Organization in Geneva, told the Voice.

The Department of Defense has acknowledged the use of depleted uranium but contends that there is no known link between the use of depleted-uranium weapons and increased risk of serious illness. Environmentalists and the governments of Iraq and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia claimed that the use of such anti-tank shells and rockets in the first Gulf War and in NATO’s bombing of the Balkans have led to spikes of up to 12 times the previous rates for cancer and 10 times for birth defects. In the Balkans, UNEP found that contamination was not high enough to pose a significant health risk, but recommended precautionary cleanup because uranium had contaminated ground water and could still be detected in the air and soil years later. Data is incomplete because few studies have been done on troops and civilians exposed, especially in the moments after weapons hit their target, when depleted uranium might be inhaled.

In Iraq, humans aren’t the only immediate victims. The desert itself may take a century or more to recover from the damage caused by the rapid push of thousands of tons of military hardware. One endangered ecosystem in Iraq, however, may actually benefit from the conflict. The USAID announced plans to help resuscitate the huge Mesopotamian marshlands, an important spawning ground for many fisheries and home to rare wildlife and the culture of the Marsh Arabs, heirs to the Sumerians and Babylonians. Saddam Hussein had built a series of giant canals to drain the marshes, thought by some to be the site of the Garden of Eden. Upstream dams in surrounding countries have exacerbated the problem. Hussein’s project followed old British colonial plans to use the land for agriculture, but his critics claimed that it was largely a politically motivated plan to hurt the 500,000 Marsh Arabs, some of whom had joined the post-war uprising against him in 1992.

UN agencies seem most likely to step in to deal with Iraq’s environmental problems. The UNEP started a “desk study” of the environment of Iraq days before the bombing began. If the Security Council issues a mandate, UNEP’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit would enter Iraq to gauge the damage and recommend solutions. But that doesn’t guarantee that the money will be made available to carry out those solutions. In the aftermath of past wars, UNEP proposals have been hamstrung by limited funding. After the war in Kosovo, the UNEP identified four “hot spots” of contamination caused by NATO bombing and 27 cleanup projects, with an estimated cost of $21 million. It took UNEP nearly two years to do the analysis and raise money—only $12.5 million so far—before starting the cleanup, said Sriram Gopal, staff scientist for the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland, and co-author of a study examining the effects of the NATO bombing of a car factory in Serbia. “If the spills had been treated right after the bombing,” Gopal said, “it would have been relatively simple. But now the chemicals are in the groundwater and it’s much more complex.”

Since the first Gulf War, a dozen nations, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, along with other countries that helped in the environmental cleanup, have submitted nearly $80 billion in claims to the United Nations; most of the claims haven’t yet been paid. In this war, funding hasn’t come through yet for UNEP’s initial request of half a million dollars, part of a UN appeal to its members for $2.2 billion in emergency assistance to Iraq in the next six months. During the war to date, USAID has spent half a billion dollars on aid to Iraq, virtually none of it on environmental issues.

A short attention span may be as limiting as shallow pockets. In 1991, UNEP recommended creation of an international plan to rehabilitate the environment, a sort of Marshall Plan to deal with the environmental disaster in the Middle East caused by the first Gulf War. The plan never materialized, and much of the damage remains. When asked why, Nick Nuttall, UNEP’s head of communications, said there was no particular reason. “After a war. there’s lots of goodwill and good ideas,” he said. “And then the world moves on.”