The war in Iraq: general environmental implications
This paper reviews the experiences from previous conflicts, including the 1991 Gulf war, and assesses their impact on the environment.
Firstly, targeting industrial and military sites such as armaments factories and oil refineries is likely to lead to acute chemical pollution:
- The UK Government has named nine sites in Iraq as involved in the production of biological and chemical agents and these are likely to be targeted
- during the 1991 war in Kuwait, Iraqi forces destroyed more than seven hundred oil wells in Kuwait, spilling sixty million barrels of oil. As a result: two fifths of Kuwait's entire freshwater reserve remains contaminated to this day; during the nine months that the wells burned, average air temperatures fell by 10 degrees C; and the costs of the environmental damage were estimated at $40 billion
- in the 1991 Gulf War destruction of sewage treatment plants in Kuwait resulted in the discharge of over 50,000 cubic metres of raw sewage every day into Kuwait Bay
The paper then goes on to assess the environmental impact of the specific weapons used by the US and the UK. Problem weapons include the use of uranium. According to estimates 50 tonnes of uranium can cause up to half a million additional cancer deaths over several decades. Decontamination costs $4-5bn for every 200 hectares.
Finally, the authors argue that the war would pose a serious threat to biodiversity. In the 1991 Gulf War, fallout from burning oil products produced a sea surface microlayer that was toxic to plankton and the larval stages of marine organisms. Sea temperatures also fell.
Friends of the Earth believe that the major US motivation for the war is to safe-guard oil reserves. They argue that the only solution to the problem of oil dependency by highly industrialized countries is an increased reliance on clean and sustainable energy sources. Military action to secure oil supplies on the other hand threatens to increase environmental injustice. It would concentrate control over resources amongst the richer over-consuming nations, and worse, it would increase the rate of consumption of fossil fuels, and thus emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases, with the most severe impacts being felt in poorer developing nations.