Persian Gulf Becoming An Ecological Mess

KUWAIT CITY - An indelible image from the Persian Gulf War: billowing black smoke from some of the 613 oil wells set on fire by a retreating Iraqi army.

Now put those memories aside, for nearly five years after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Persian Gulf faces ecological dangers that overshadow the Gulf War's.

Experts call one a time bomb: Divers have determined at least one of the oil tankers sunk off Iraq during the war may be in imminent danger of leaking. The United Nations hopes to oversee a rescue operation in coming weeks of one ship carrying 700,000 barrels of crude.

A second menace may haunt the region for much longer: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's systematic draining of vast stretches of marshlands in southern Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers merge into the Shatt Al Arab river.

The marshes act as the Gulf's life source - spawning grounds for fish; an ideal habitat for migratory birds; and a natural filter for the northern Gulf. Oily water flows in, the pollutants fall to the mucky bottom, and cleansed water flows back into the Gulf.

Saddam said he has drained the marshes for decades to create the Third River, a canal that flows between the Tigris and the Euphrates - an American consultant's idea in the 1950s to reclaim agricultural land that would otherwise be desert.

But the draining intensified during his slash-and-burn campaign against Shiite guerrillas who have taken refuge in the marshes. Saddam may have another motive: Beneath the marshes are large oil fields - perhaps a third of Iraq's known oil reserves.

Satellite photographs show that Iraq has dried up 90 percent of the marshland that existed 20 years ago.

One group that studied the marshes last year, the London-based Amar Appeal, said the impact on climate and biological diversity is comparable to that of the destruction of rain forest in parts of Latin America.

Several species of animals that lived in the marshes are thought to be extinct due to the draining.

And the effects of the draining may be being felt in the Gulf.

Last winter, Kuwait reported a sharp drop in the millions of migratory birds passing through the area. And Kuwaiti and Iranian fishermen have reported an 80 percent to 90 percent drop in fish catch over the past 18 months.

"It's almost like we have nothing to catch," said Mohammed Al-Najdi, vice president of the Kuwait Association of Fishermen. "From what we hear, the marshes are almost completely dry. That's our main concern. The fish will have nowhere to lay their eggs. This upcoming season is the last chance for us. If we fail again, the majority of the fishermen will go out of business."

To be sure, the Persian Gulf has long been far from pristine.

This is the Main Street of petroleum, a passageway for nearly two-thirds of all the oil in the world. And with traffic come accidents. Large oil spills are not uncommon.

The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s polluted the waters terribly, especially after both sides began going after the other's oil tankers in a campaign to shut down their income.

180 ships at the bottom

The 1991 war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait saw more ships go down, and today an estimated 180 ships litter the bottom of the Gulf and the Shatt Al Arab river. Two dozen of the ships are oil tankers.

But pollution is also a more prosaic issue. Each day, an estimated 20,000 barrels of oil spill into the Gulf from tanker loading, ballasting operations and oil exploration.

On some stretches of shoreline, notably in Saudi Arabia and parts of Iran and the United Arab Emirates, any child sinking a shovel in the sand will discover soft black tar only pail-deep.

"A lot of our shores are full of chunks of tar," said Hamid Reza Ghaffarzadeh, program officer for the United Nations Development Program in Tehran.

"I very much fear for the future of the Persian Gulf," he said. "The two regional wars tremendously added to the pollution. But there are many other problems. It's a very busy sea. And for historical reasons, regional cooperation is very difficult.

"There's another problem too," he said. "The international community believes that the countries here are rich enough to clean it up themselves. So they won't give money. But if the countries aren't cooperating, nothing will get done."

Lack of Iraqi cooperation

Such problems are obvious at the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment, headquartered in Kuwait, which includes Iran, Iraq and all the Arab nations on the Gulf.

That creates difficulties.

Iraq objects to any cleanup of the sunken oil tankers, which were sunk by U.S. forces at the very end of the Gulf War.

The most worrisome situation involves the Amuriyah, one of four oil tankers sunk by U.S. forces in and near Um Qassar, an Iraqi port just north of the border with Kuwait, in the final days of Operation Desert Storm.

A team from the London-based International Marine Organization examined the ship a year ago and found that it could split open at any time.

"You kind of need Iraq to give the United Nations approval to clean it up," said a Western diplomat based in Kuwait City. "The Amuriyah is sitting there right on the border of Iraq and Kuwait. It's a time bomb. It's tick, tick, ticking."

The United Nations Security Council approved a plan in March to salvage the wreck. But the privately funded project has been on hold largely because of delicate political considerations surrounding the U.N. embargo of Iraqi oil exports, according to diplomats and U.N. sources.

Kuwait waits nervously.

"That ship is practically cracking," said Abdul Rahman Al-Awadhi, executive secretary of the regional marine environmental group. "If it breaks down, all the oil is coming here."


Environmentalists say that if Amuriyah's oil leaks, the oil may enter Kuwait City's bay but is more likely to flow along currents to the shores of Saudi Arabia - just like the other huge Gulf War spills.

John Ostergaard, part of the International Marine Organization team that evaluated the sunken tankers, said the Amuriyah's superstructure burned when it was bombed. Tank section No. 2 - the part with the estimated 700,000 barrels - lies about 45 feet below the surface.

"The steel itself is exposed to the environment and therefore the corrosion is going faster than if it just sank from a naval accident," Ostergaard said.

"We recommended that the oil be taken out immediately."

That was a year ago.

There is some hope for the future of the Gulf environment.

In the Gulf emirate of Oman this spring, Gulf countries held a conference to discuss minimizing pollution from tankers and building facilities in ports for ballasting - the flushing of oily water from the tankers' holds.

"It seems that the countries are also becoming more and more concerned," Ostergaard said.

But environmentalists worry that disaster could strike at any time, or that, in the case of Iraq's marshlands, disaster is already under way.

"These accidents and troubles let us realize how precious the Gulf is," said Shaker Khamdan, an ecologist at the Environmental Protection Committee in Bahrain, an island whose inhabitants once lived off a now-diminished pearling industry.

"For generations, we lived very closely with the sea. Oil brought prosperity, but it also endangered the treasure that we've had for hundreds of years."