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The Persian Gulf: After the Storm
Photo: Burning oil fields

Skirting abandoned bunkers and mindful of hidden Iraqi mines, we have driven
deep into the inferno of Kuwait Ahmadi oil field. Fires of dynamited wellheads, roaring like jet engines, rage on every side.

We stop for photographer Steve McCurry to shoot pictures, and I take a count. Sixty-eight fountains of fire hurl smoke into the black canopy overhead. Throughout this shattered land more than 500 flaming wells spew poisons aloft, each systematically ignited by Iraqi invaders three weeks before.

In this dark and surrealistic landscape a drizzle of soot and oil flashes in our headlights and stains our protective gauze masks. The smoke cloud blocks the midmorning sun, and the fouled desert air is chill.

Some of the fires leap 200 feet (61 meters) in the air. Twisting and writhing in the wind, they resemble flaming tornadoes tethered to their wellheads. The hottest we give wide berth, lest the searing heat touch off our gas tank.

We explore an abandoned farm laid out among the wells. Grasses and trees glisten black, oily to the touch. A faltering specter parts the twilight—a horse. Once it was a fine white Arabian mare. Now it is a gaunt ghost, pitiably stained and matted with oil. It nuzzles our headlamps oddly, as if craving light, then reaches for our offering of apples and water. We know it soon will die in this befouled land.

A few miles to the south, where the Persian Gulf washes the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, another environmental atrocity assaults the region. Here probably the largest oil spill ever known, covering some 600 square miles (1,553,993 square kilometers) of sea surface, blackens 300 miles (483 kilometers) of coastline and much of the wildlife it nurtured. Blasting pipelines and storage facilities and emptying loaded tankers, the Iraqis deliberately spilled as much as six million barrels of crude-Iraqi as well as Kuwaiti.

Like the air and sea, the land has felt war’s ravages. Thousands of military vehicles, churning the desert surface in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq, have violently altered the soil structure. A result, says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, may be a worsening of sandstorms whipped up by the shamal, the notorious northwesterlies. Paradoxically, where the Kuwaiti smoke cloud hangs over the desert, falling oil and soot congeal with the sand to form a brittle crust.

I visited the gulf soon after the guns had stilled, when concern was beginning to focus on the war’s environmental impact. I came away appalled by the magnitude of the disaster and the wantonness of the Iraqis who perpetrated it. I learned too that only intensive medical and scientific monitoring can ultimately assess its true cost.

The oil fires in Kuwait, and the monstrous plume they exhaled, riveted the world’s attention. Each day relentless flames devoured about five million barrels of oil, generating more than half a million tons (500 metric tons) of aerial pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, the key component of acid rain. Billowing two miles high (3 kilometers), the sooty pall rode the winds to smudge far beyond Kuwait: Black rains fell in Saudi Arabia and Iran; black snow greeted skiers in Kashmir more than 1, 500 miles (2414 kilometers) eastward.

Human health is already being affected, in ways and degrees perhaps never to be known with certainty. Respiratory ailments appear to be increasing markedly. And researchers worry about carcinogens in the great cloud.

Nor was there prospect of quick relief. Three Texas fire-fighting crews and one from Canada were struggling to fly in equipment and contend with land mines and bureaucracy when I roved the country in mid-March. Two months later a hundred wells had been brought under control, but these were the easiest ones. Growing lakes of oil and submerged mines may delay the task for several years.

Hammad Butti, an employee of the Kuwait Oil Company in Al Ahmadi, south of Kuwait City, had watched helplessly as the Iraqis blew up the wells. “Saddam Hussein sent down oil men from Iraq, and they studied our operation. If you didn’t cooperate, they would kill you. A month before the disaster they kicked us out of the control room, where I worked.

“On Sunday, February 17, they began to fire the wells. They put dynamite in each, put a sandbag on each charge to direct the blast downward, and detonated it with an electric charge. Every 10 or 15 minutes they fired another well - boom! Soon the sky was full of fire and smoke.”

Mr. Butti took me to see the control room, which had regulated the flow of oil from the field to offshore tankers. “My chair was in that corner.” The room and its computerized controls had been blown to smithereens.

We went to his home, half a duplex of company housing, within earshot of the howling well fires. The pall of smoke hung low over head, spreading darkness and cold. A film of grimy oil coated every surface, including the skin and clothes of his 17 children. They gathered around us, as did his two wives, Fatima and Saada.

“How do you get them clean?” I asked “Scrubbing,” Fatima said, kneading worn hands. “Still we are never clean.”

HALF A BLOCK AWAY lived Niza Kawash and his wife and four children. Mr. Kawash, a professional nurse, was in charge of the emergency room at the oil-company hospital. “We’re treating many more bronchial and asthma cases,” he told me. “A lot of coughing and upper-throat infections.” I encounter many Kuwaitis who felt intense anxiety about carcinogens and other unknowns that might lurk in the hovering smoke.

“It’s hard on the children,” said Mr. Kawash. “When they play outside, they turn black, like little car mechanics. We can’t let them go anywhere, for fear of mines and live cluster bombs.” From the living room we could hear an allied demolition team detonating unexploded bombs that had been dropped on nearby Iraqi emplacements.

Most of the neighbors had fled, first from the Iraqis, then from the cloud. The family lived on food they had stored and sparse supplies obtainable with ration cards. They gathered water from cisterns of abandoned homes. Mrs. Kawash showed me their flock of 3 chickens. Once alabaster leghorns wore grimy gray. “They stopped laying when the smoke came. The roosters even stopped crowing.” Ahmed, nine, emerged from the hen house beaming, a welcome first egg in hand.

I paused at the vegetable garden. The plants were dead from the coating of oil and lack of irrigation water. “The eggs and vegetables meant so much,” said Mrs. Kawash, faltering. Then she blurted, “I hate to have to ask for food. Yesterday I cried all day.”

What would they do? “The bombs didn’t drive me out and neither will the smoke,” said Mr. Kawash. “How can I leave the hospital when I’m most needed? I hope my wife will leave temporarily, with the children.”

THIRTY MILES SOUTH of Kuwait City, I visited a once innovative agricultural experiment station. Here I saw in microcosm the smoke’s effects on farming elsewhere under the plume.

Iraqi soldiers had bivouacked at the station, and it lay in shambles; even the photocopiers had been booby-trapped. Dazed agricultural scientists were just starting to pull things together again.

“The Iraqis used the business office for a command and control center,” said Jamal Mohammed, an irrigation engineer. “Kuwaiti resistance fighters sent word to the allies, and you can see the result.” He gestured toward rubble surrounding a crater—a testimonial to the pinpoint accuracy of allied bombing.

We entered the greenhouse area; Arab agriculture relies heavily on these shelters from heat and cold. “Greenhouse cultivation requires 80 percent illumination for growth,” said a technician. “The smoke will interfere, as will falling soot. Only strong chemicals can remove the soot from the glass.”

Daunting setbacks faced the acting director of animal health. “We had a herd of 550 dairy cattle,” said Khalil Al Dosari. “The Iraqis ate all but 79, and these are in bad condition. We had experimental sheep and goats, bred to produce triple births; the Iraqis ate the breeding stock.” He showed me the slaughter spot, blood soaked and swarming with flies.

Mr. Al Dosari foresaw smoke-related problems throughout the region. “Chemicals from the fires will enter the milk of sheep and dairy cattle through respiration and feed and by soiling of their udders. Wool will require chemical cleaning before it can be used. Reduced sunshine and falling soot may cause deficiencies in essential vitamins D and E.”

I visited a prime agricultural region, centered on the town of Al Wafrah. Before the war immigrant workers in this irrigated oasis had raised an abundance of vegetables and fruits, chickens and eggs. We saw no living crop, no working farmer. Cucumbers grown for export to Paris withered in the greenhouses. Chicken houses reeked of dead fowl. The thousands of workers had returned to the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India, affecting national economies that had benefited from wages they sent home.

At the Kuwait zoo, a handful of animals and these were suffering from neglect; some bore wounds inflicted by Iraqis who shot caged beasts for food or pleasure. Others had disappeared believed abducted to Iraq—while a fortunate few had been adopted by Kuwaitis, to be returned when the storm of war had passed.

KUWAITIS KNEW their environment was in dire trouble, but they had lost the means to measure the damage. Before the war this wealthy nation had supported one of the premier scientific centers of the Middle East, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. Now KISR was a shell, plundered and partly destroyed. Before fleeing, the Iraqis left their familiar final insult by defecating on the floors.

I located a more modest lab, hidden in a seedy commercial section. There, in the semidarkness of a city without electricity and living under the smoke, I spoke with technician Sabah Abdul-Wahab. “The Iraqis left three air samplers. We placed them on roofs of hospitals, which have emergency generators.”

She showed me the first air analysis since the fires began. As expected, it revealed a sharp increase in sulfur dioxide. To my surprise, however, by stringent U.S. health standards the level still was safe. Sampling a broad range of smoke pollutants, a team of U.S. experts tentatively concluded that the situation “does not appear to be life threatening.”

The mounting stench outside the International Hotel signaled another environmental problem: Trash was piling up, and the shattered national infrastructure could not cope.

To the rescue came an unlikely convoy: 30 dump trucks and loaders of Waste Management, Inc., of Chicago, toiling northward from Saudi Arabia behind George Villasana, a company vice president. “We came without a contract-we’ll do the job, then see about money,” said Mr. Villasana. Dependence on foreigners, I learned, characterized pre-war Kuwait, and now their absence contributed much to the country’s seeming paralysis.

Among the flaming oil wells of Kuwait, I saw dynamited wellheads that had not caught fire. Geysers of gray-brown crude spurted 50 and 60 feet (15 and 18 meters) in the air. Around them grew small lakes of oil, and these caused great concern: What if they found their way down to the gulf?

The gulf needs no more oil.

Nobody knows, or ever will know, the exact amount Saddam Hussein released. “Our best estimate is between four and six million barrels,” said Capt. Robert E. Luchun of the U.S. Coast Guard, senior American spill adviser in Saudi Arabia. “It’s as if a fleet of monster tankers ran aground.”

Why the uncertainty? “In reality the spill was a series of releases,” Captain Luchun said. “Iraqi artillery ruptured oil tanks during the battle for Al Khafji, and oil flowed into the gulf. The Iraqis released oil at the Sea Island loading area, off Kuwait—the largest spill. To top it off, they brought in loaded tankers—seven, we think—and dumped their cargoes.”

Nightmarish as the present spill is, if four brave Kuwaitis had not tricked the Iraqis, it could have been three times as large.

“We worked by night because the Iraqis had spies,” recalled Khalid al-Othman, a refinery superintendent with the Kuwait Oil Company at Mina Al Ahmadi. “A 48-inch (~1.2 meter) pipe carried oil from storage tanks down to Sea Island. Those tanks held 8.5 million barrels that the Iraqis intended to release into the gulf. We secretly closed a valve the Iraqis didn’t know about and, to fool them, changed the valve indicator to ‘open.’ When they dynamited Sea Island to release the main spill, our valve held back those millions of barrels in the storage tanks.”

THE DELUGE of oil that was released struck a vital ecosystem. Gulf waters teem with life. “The gulf is shallow—only 110 feet (33 meters) deep on average,” explained John McCain of the Research Institute of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. “As a result, unique physical and biological processes promote vigorous growth of sea grasses and algae at the bottom, along with plankton in the water. For thousands of years this productivity has supported fisheries of shrimp and fin-fish like mackerel, mullet, snapper, and prized hamour, or grouper.”

On the Saudi side—the coastline hit by the oil—this shallowness translates into gentle beaches with wide inter-tidal zones. These make the gulf an important region for migrating and wintering wading birds, including plovers and sandpipers. Seaward, vast marine meadows support larvae and fry.

Off the Saudi coast a chain of islands claims critical importance to wildlife. Two species of cormorants frequent them—the great cormorant and the endemic Socotra. Green turtles and endangered hawksbill turtles crawl ashore to plant their eggs. Most islands are ringed with fragile corals.

In this system, oil is a familiar presence. The gulf is both the source and the highway for much of the world’s crude. Officials estimate that a quarter of a million barrels a year routinely spill—much more was lost during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war - and most gulf nations possess limited cleanup capabilities. I drove beaches that were paved for miles with old “tar mat,” previously spilled oil and sand weathered into a thick asphalt crust.

Yet no precedent existed for the enormous slick that crept from Kuwait.

“We first saw it on January 19,” said Ala Al-Rabeh of the Research Institute, whose computer model helped forecast the movements of the slick. “Luckily, for two weeks the winds were unseasonably soft and often blew from the southeast. This held the slick at bay and gave valuable time to prepare.”

Quick action - though limited in scope - came from Saudi Aramco, the immense national oil company. Vital facilities line the threatened coast: tanker terminals, refineries, power and desalination plants. The company laid down 25 miles (40 kilometers) of boom, mobilized a fleet of 21 oil-recovery vessels, and activated its arsenal of cleanup devices.

A second agency oversees imperiled coastal facilities. This is the Royal Commission for Jubayl and Yanbu, whose head, Prince Abdullah ibn Faisal ibn Turki, presides over an empire of refineries and petrochemical plants. It too moved decisively to deploy booms and remove encroaching oil.

The rest of the coast—the undeveloped domain that falls by default to gulf wildlife—came under the jurisdiction of MEPA, the Meteorological and Environmental Protection Administration. But the agency was ill prepared and enmeshed in bureaucratic rivalries. It found itself overwhelmed by the colossal spill—a disaster that would have overtaxed the response capabilities of Western nations.

Meanwhile the international community reacted. The United States Coast Guard dispatched two radar-surveillance aircraft specially equipped to monitor slicks. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent a spill-trajectory analyst, and the Fish and Wildlife Service designated a spill-response biologist. All were veterans of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez spill.

Advisers and support also came from Europe, Australia, and Japan. Compared with emergency responses familiar to the international group, however, the gulf cleanup effort appeared minuscule and irresolute.

Winds shifted, and the slick moved southward, washing over the Saudi coast. “With every tide the oil floated in and out of embayments, and it left little untouched,” observed Othman Llewellyn of the Saudi National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development, a key agency assisting MEPA.

TO GAUGE the enormity of the disaster, I flew in a Saudi helicopter with Aziz Alomari, MEPA’s daily reconnaissance scout. Near the Kuwait border the beaches were white; winds and tides had spared them. Farther south the scene invited disbelief.

Offshore, an immense film of oil called sheen polished the sea and mirrored the somber smoke cloud from the Kuwaiti oil fires. “Some of the oil is new - probably from leaks at Sea Island off Kuwait,” said Mr. Alomari. Floating in the sheen were chocolate mats known as mousse - older oil that had combined with the water to form an emulsion.

Just south of Al Khafji the slick first came aground. Oil blackened the broad tidal zone, often half a mile wide. My imagination saw a malevolent giant wielding a Magic Marker to outline the crenellated coast.

Farther south we rounded a cape into Al Musallamiyah Bay. Its sculptured shores were hideously stained, as if charred by fire. Here the inter-tidal zone was a black band a mile wide; pools of oil waited for the next tide to smear it on more wildlife habitat.

To seaward the oil thinned out. “About 40 to 50 percent evaporates as volatiles,” said Mr. Alomari. “A lot has gone ashore, and some has sunk—weighted down by sand from shore or sand blown onto the sea by the winds. And, of course, there’s the recovery effort.”

From the air this effort appeared puny—a few crews sent out by Aramco, the Royal Commission, and MEPA manning skimmers and vacuum trucks and dumping the recovered oil into inland disposal pits for salvage later. But their cumulative effect was impressive: 20,000 to 30,000 barrels a day.

In Ad Dafi Bay the oil piled the thickest. I smelled it from the copter. We circled over Gurmah Island, with its treasured stand of dwarf black mangroves. Countless doomed trees lined tidal channels that once pulsed with life and now ran black with oil.

Below us I picked out Abu Ali Island, with its connecting causeway. It thrust like a bent arm far out in the gulf. Abu Ali’s north shore wore the ugly rime of oil. But along the southern shore the water sparkled clear. The island was serving as a natural boom, holding back the black tide from industrial Al Jubayl, from Tarut Bay and its fleet of fishing dhows, from the great industrial port of Ad Dammam.

That evening at MEPA headquarters in Dhahran I attended the daily meeting of the spill-response team, a group ably led by Nizar Tawfiq. By now I had come to know and admire the concerned individuals who gathered about this long table. Senior meteorologist Walid Bakir Agha predicted the next day’s winds and where they might move the oil. Aziz Alomari described the fresh slick near Ras at Tanaqib seen from our helicopter.

Ominous news came from Jay Rodstein, the NOAA spill-trajectory analyst: Oil was nearing the north coast of Bahrain.

Abdul Rahman Al-Shahri gave the Aramco update: 320 men in the field had recovered 16,549 barrels of oil that day. A Dutch contractor hired by MEPA gave a similarly encouraging report, as did an American firm recovering oil for the Royal Commission.

At the edge of the circle of oil fighters sat an anxious and dwindling group: private contractors, many of them American. With news of the spill, hundreds of oil-cleanup companies had seen a need and an opportunity and had offered their services. A handful of representatives sat uneasily night after night, incurring costs, awaiting action by MEPA.

The agency seemed unable to make the decisions needed to protect Saudi wetlands and the wildlife and fisheries they supported. Almost daily foreign teams visited the coast to survey the damage and prescribe cleanup procedures, but little action followed.

I JOINED A GROUP pointing toward stricken Al Musallamiyah Bay, favored habitat for migrant wading birds. “There’s too much oil-impacted beach to clean all of it,” said John Oestergaard, a Danish expert representing the International Maritime Organization. The IMO was coordinating international assistance on the spill and has since set up a multimillion-dollar cleanup fund. “We’ll try to save two or three sections that are manageable and important for wildlife.”

Approaching the bay, we encountered a target range used by troops preparing for the ground war. Vehicle tracks churned the sand amid a litter of spent missile launchers. This patch of desert would take years to heal.

At water’s edge, oil-coated crabs lay everywhere. “It’s a relief that they’ve died,” said Tony Preen, an Australian biologist whom the Saudis had asked for assistance. “A few days ago they were still struggling.”

We trod a strange, oil-soaked surface, wrinkled like a rug. “Algal mat,” said Mr. Preen. “Important habitat but dying under the oil.” “We can make use of the tide and natural drainage channels to remove oil without disturbing the surface,” said John McMurtie managing director of Alba International Scotland. Mr. Oestergaard had recognized Alba as one of the companies having the technology for cleaning fragile beaches.

Four camels wandered by, cropping marsh grass. I watched one place its mouth around oiled tuft, hesitate, then pass on.

Dead fish scattered the beach; dead cormorants, dead grebes; feathered shapes encrusted to identify. “Terrible. And unnecessary,” said Mr. McMurtrie, alluding to the ease with which many baylets could have been protectively boomed.

Similar frustration gnawed Tony Preen: “Every coastal installation has been protected with multiple lines of booms. Yet we haven’t been able to deploy a single meter of boom to protect natural habitats.”

IN THIS DREARY ATMOSPHERE of environmental defeat, one small victory shone through. It went to the gulf’s imperiled turtles. Egg-laying season was approaching and there was worry about the turtles’ nesting grounds. The islands were badly oiled and littered with debris that the amphibians would scarcely be able to lumber ashore and dig pits. Volunteers were needed, and helicopters impossible to come by. Disaster loomed.

Word reached the British Royal Air For and it offered Chinook copters. Royal Marines and their U.S. counterparts provided strong hands. In three days they tidied four island maternity wards. “The day we finished, early arriving hawksbill waded onto an island to nest,” said a pleased John Grainger of the Saudi wildlife commission.

Gurmah Island, with its many mangrove was another major concern. Don Kane, a spill response specialist with U.S. Fish and Wild life, had worked with three other volunteers lay 1,100 feet of protective boom across tidal channels carrying oil among the trees. We boated to Gurmah to check on them.

Wearing high boots, we crossed immense algal mats to the mangroves. The tallest came to my chin. “Not giants,” said Mr.Kane, “but for Saudi Arabia this is important habitat.” Clumps of small stalks resembling asparagus grew in channels among the trees. “Those are pneumatophores,” he said, “roots that allow the mangroves to respire.” Many were black with oil, and adjacent trees wore yellowing leaves; most would die.

We came upon booms the foursome had laid. One had sunk beneath the surface, and oil slithered past. Mr. Kane waded into oily water above the tops of his boots and secured the boom to a sturdy mangrove.

Other booms floated nicely. As planned, oil piled up on their seaward sides, while the protected channels carried clear water past healthy trees. “When the island heals, those will seed a new forest, ” said Mr. Kane.

Good things also were happening at the bird rehabilitation center in Al Jubayl.

“We’ve received about 1,200 birds so far,” said director Yousef Al-Wutaid. “Several hundred have been processed and released in the wild. We’ll free 50 more tomorrow.”

Assistant director Peter Symens pointed out recent arrivals: a begrimed gray heron, a great cormorant, a haughty Caspian tern, ruffled and indignant. “The tern was a real tar ball when he came in. He’s got a powerful beak.” Mr. Symens flexed a finger in recollection.

“We rehydrate new arrivals with a mix of water, sugar, and salt. Oil halts their metabolism, and the rehydrant kick-starts it again. Then we wash the birds in household detergent.” I watched a Socotra cormorant slowly shed its stain in the hands of two volunteers, a U.S. Marine and a Royal Highlands Fusilier. The infantrymen would spend two hours gently cleaning between feathers.

Hundreds of birds milled in recovery rooms, waiting to regain their natural water repellence. From there they would graduate to a holding pool, last stop before release. Ninety-seven preened around the pool that day, lolling like bathing beauties.

Not all the patients survived. “At first we lost most of the great cormorants,” said Mr. Symens. “They were sensitive to stress. Then we tried Inderal, a drug that depresses the heart rate. We haven’t lost one since.

“The grebes are still a problem. Oily sand sticks to their feathers, and they tend to swallow it, forming a lethal stone in their gizzard. There’s nothing we can do for them.”

Run by the wildlife commission in an unused cafeteria, the center became a magnet for volunteers. Many were military personnel. “A nearby British field hospital was staffed with 900 nurses, expecting heavy casualties from the ground war,” he said. “They had only nine patients. The nurses pitched in, and male volunteers quickly followed.

“In terms of birds killed, the number we treat is small. But the center has served to raise public awareness. Many of our volunteers are Saudis, from as far as Riyadh and Jiddah”.

How many birds has the slick claimed? “From body counts along the beaches, we estimate at least 20,000,” said Mr. Symens. “Fewer birds are being brought into the center now, and we’re hoping the worst is over.”

BACK IN DHAHRAN there was little sign of action. Mid-March brought Ramadan, the Islamic month of daytime fasting, and the tempo of work slowed. Fewer contractors appeared at the MEPA meetings; many had gone home.

A small Texas company persevered. Alpha 30 Environmental had come from Austin to cleanse Saudi wetlands with its oil-eating microbes and a special biocatalyst to stimulate them. The Research Institute of King Fahd University set up experiments to test the technology and its aftereffects. Alpha Vice President Franz Hiebert scoured Dhahran for 18 aquarium tanks. Soon assorted combinations of bugs, catalyst, seawater, and floating oil were percolating in an institute lab.

At press time, Alpha was optimistic that it would soon win a test of its technology on a Saudi beach.

Bad news came from NOAA: Radar told of oil reaching Bahrain, where abundant sea grass supports large populations of dugongs, mammalian cousins of manatees.

Heat was now a problem and would get worse. “By June it may be 130F (54C) in the shade,” warned Lt. Comdr. Kenneth Keane of the Coast Guard. “Workers will become nauseated by gases from the oil if they’re not wearing respirators. And respirators are cumbersome. The window for action is closing.”

Similar concerns had set wheels turning in the offices of Dr. Tawfiq and others high in the Saudi government. In late March, just before I left the kingdom, word came that MEPA had named Crowley Maritime Corporation, a major U.S. spill-response firm, as principal contractor for coping with the oil. At long last a means existed for assigning subcontractors to clean despoiled beaches.

During the two months of seeming inaction that followed the spill, the international team often drew comparisons with other spills, such as Exxon Valdez in Alaska. That event, so much smaller in scale, evoked a response 20 times as vigorous. Ten thousand workers at a time, volunteer and official, had labored to help clean that states fouled beaches.

I raised the obvious question: How strong is the environmental ethic in Saudi Arabia?

“Recall that we were at war when the spill occurred,” said Abdallah E. Dabbagh, director of the Research Institute. “Saudi resources were strained to the limit, and still are.” It was true. The kingdom had not only waged a war but also generated electricity and water to support three-quarters of a million foreign troops. It was stretched financially, and wartime conditions had prevented obedience to the first rule in an oil spill: Stop the flow at its source.

What about the lack of public involvement? “The people were confident the agencies would take care of it,” said Dr. Tawfiq. “If the government had asked them to help clean up, they would have.” He reminded me of the Saudi volunteers at the Al Jubayl bird center.

“Both MEPA and the wildlife commission reflect Saudi Arabia’s growing concern for nature,” said Australian biologist Tony Chiffings. “The movement originated in part when the princes of the royal family, who are ardent falconers, became concerned about a decline of houbara bustards, their main game bird, as well as other wildlife. Prince Saud Al-Faisal learned that the bustards could be bred in captivity. This planted the idea of a captive breeding program for bustards and other species, such as onyx and gazelles. The commission grew from this seed.”

I crossed the causeway from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain and walked a final beach. Tar balls freckled the sand. “They represent only a fraction of the oil from earlier spills, ” said NOAA’s Gary Ott. “Relative to what struck farther north, they won’t cause much harm.”

HOW MUCH HARM will be caused by the fires and the oil slick? Opinions vary. Unlike the fires, the slick falls within human experience, in kind if not degree. Some experts expect its effects to be less dire than first feared. This stems in part from the gulf’s history of adaptation to spills.

“It’s a catastrophe, no question,” said Othman Llewellyn of the wildlife commission. “But when we went out soon after the spill occurred, we saw sites that had been hit hard in past years and recovered.”

Yusef Fadlallah of the Research Institute foresees a possible decline in gulf fisheries. “Juvenile fish and shrimp will die because of the destruction of nursery habitat; other sea life along the shore will be killed directly.”

Dr. Dabbagh of the institute agrees. “By invading the shallows, the oil struck the gulf’s primary energy source—its kitchen, you might say. This will be felt for generations.”

There is concern too about the oil surrounding wells that were dynamited but not fired. Seeping oil could taint Kuwait’s groundwater. A different threat faces the desert surface. Geologist Farouk El-Baz fears that disruption of nature’s “desert shield,” the armor of pebbles over naturally compacted sand, will lead to formation of shifting dunes that could block roads and airports and engulf farms. Plant geneticist Bikram Gill of Kansas State University sees a danger to ancestral grasses that may hold genes important to cereals like wheat.

What will be the effects of the fires and the spills in terms of human health?

“My major worry is toxic metals,” said Mohammad Sadiq of the Research Institute. “They are released by the slick, by combustion of oil, and by the explosives detonated in the war - the charges and metal jackets. Seawater samples from the northern gulf showed levels of metals ten times higher than normal.

“Some of the airborne metals will settle on the ground, especially in the vicinity of Kuwait, contaminating both soil and vegetation. Sheep, goats, and camels grazing on contaminated land will accumulate the metals, which may enter the food chain. Many are carcinogens, or cause brain damage and cardiovascular disorders.”

The preliminary atmospheric study by the team of U.S. experts gives grounds for optimism. Samplings revealed no significant amounts of carbon monoxide or the two dread combustion products, hydrogen sulfide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Tests downwind of the fires, made by the British Meteorological Office, found a high concentration of particulates. Fine particulates are emerging as a major culprit of lung related diseases. Those who live in Kuwait City may be at special risk should temperature inversions-common in summer-trap and concentrate the oil-fire smoke. Fortunately the fires lack the energy to pump contaminants directly into the stratosphere, so they may not cause the climatic change some had predicted.

The fires’ unprecedented size gives them high scientific value. This has prompted a major research initiative by the National Science Foundation, the University of Washington and several other universities, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the National Geographic Society.

“Not only do the fires possess the potential to affect regional weather,” William Cooper of NCAR told the Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, “they also offer an opportunity to test aspects of the nuclear winter hypothesis, which predicts severe cooling from smoke clouds reflecting sunlight. They can illuminate the effects of pollution on clouds themselves, an uncertainty in our understanding of climate change.”

As the fire fighters extinguish the wells, skies gradually will clear over Kuwait and lands downwind, and the worst of the nightmare will fade. In shallows along the Saudi coast, plants and animals will recolonize, but here too the healing may never be complete. Both will remind us that in war the environment is an inevitable casualty.


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