Introduction Environmental Effects Economic Effects Governmental and Corporate Involvement Conclusion
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Environmental Effects


Oil drilling in Kuwait poses many of the same threats as do other countries that produce this resource including air pollution, ground and water pollution, and oil spills. While oil drilling poses all of these threats, the Persian Gulf War magnified them tenfold. Every war takes an environmental toll on the landscape, but none as bad as the Persian Gulf War (Desert Storm).

After the United States assisted Kuwaiti military forces in driving out the Iraqi militants, Saddam Hussein ordered a scorched earth policy in which oil wells were to be lit on fire as troops retreated from Kuwait. By March 1991, almost 800 oil wells had been set ablaze and an estimated 3 to 5 million barrels of oil were burning per day. Initial assessments of the damage to the environment hinted that this ecological terrorism would lead to a devastating “nuclear-winter” in the area. Although the “nuclear-winter” never happened, environmental effects of the oil burning were still severe.

The burning of oil produces carbon dioxide smoke which is very harmful for the environment, and the people and animals who are subjected to it. The vast amount of smoke and soot that was generated was so large that it was reported the sun was partially being blocked out causing climate changes in the regions. Temperatures were said to have dropped 10 to 20 degrees Celsius in most areas. “Scientists calculated that the release of two million barrels of oil per day could generate a plume of smoke and soot which would cover an area of half of the United States” (The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait and the Persian Gulf). Global warming was of high concern with the smoke that was produced from the burning. Scientists estimated that the constant rise of smoke into the atmosphere would deplete the o-zone layer drastically causing many problems for plant and animal life. "The oil that did not burn in the fires traveled on the wind in the form of nearly invisible droplets resulting in an oil mist or fog that poisoned trees and grazing sheep, contaminated fresh water supplies, and found refuge in the lungs of people and animals throughout the Gulf" (Kuwait still recovering from Gulf War fires). Concern for acidic rain was also raised which would greatly hinder agricultural production in the area, as well as in distant areas due to climatic weather patterns and the transportation of the soot through airspace to other countries. "...within six days of the fires being set, a cloud of smoke stretched from Baghdad across the United Arab Emirates to Iran, and "black rain" fell as far away as Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan" (Kuwait still recovering from Gulf War fires).

“As a result of the Iraqi scorched earth policy, it was estimated that 250 million gallons of oil - more than 20 times the amount spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska - flowed into the Gulf, causing irreparable harm to the biological diversity and physical integrity of the Gulf. Oil soaked over 440 miles of Saudi Arabia's coastline. Due to the Gulf's sluggish circulation system, it will take years before the oil is swept away by the natural forces of the water” (Oil Production and Environmental Damage).

In addition to the burning of the oil wells, approximately 11 million barrels of oil were released into the Persian Gulf creating a devastating effect on the biological ecosystem of the Gulf and the fisheries of the area. Many people work for the oil industry in Kuwait; however fishing is one other major industry that many make a profitable income through. The devastating effects on the ecosystems of the Persian Gulf had intense effects on the fishing industry. “As an example of the vibrancy of this industry, prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the Gulf had yielded harvests of marine life of up to 120,000 tons of fish a year; after the oil spillage, these numbers significantly dropped. In addition to this degradation to an economic activity, many people living on the Gulf coast depend on fishing as purely a subsistence activity, and the oil spillage has disrupted the spawning of shrimp and fish” (Oil Production and Environmental Damage). Also see Economic Effects.

The air pollution that the burning also created caused many problems for migratory birds in the area; significant amounts of birds died as a result of exposure to oil and the polluted air. The polluted air also caused respiratory problems for many Kuwaiti citizens. Concerns of lung cancer and birth defects were raised and the death rate was predicted to rise by as much as 10% within a short amount of time. Thousands were left without homes; oil lakes and smoke covered 5% of the land area of Kuwait making many areas uninhabitable. “Hundreds of miles of the Kuwaiti desert were left uninhabitable, due to the accumulation of oil lakes and of soot from the burning wells” (The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait and the Persian Gulf).

While the Persian Gulf War extremely impacted the environment through the oil burning, a different view has been taken by many environmentalists.

“Interestingly, environmentalists have recently raised concerns that 'normal' pollution in the Gulf (caused by frequent spillages of oil and emissions of dirty ballast from passing tankers) poses a greater environmental threat than any damage inflicted by the Kuwaiti oil fires. Official statistics indicate that the Gulf is polluted by 1.14 million tons of oil per year (equivalent to 25,000 barrels of oil per day), which is dispersed by 40 percent of the more than 6,000 oil tankers which transverse the Gulf each year. Abdul-Rahman al-Awadi, executive secretary of the Regional Organization for the Marine Environment (ROPME) lamented "'If we go on like this, we won't need a war to complete the destruction of our marine environment - normal (tanker) operations will do it’” (The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait and the Persian Gulf).

Kuwait National Petroleum Company (KNPC) has listed Significant Environmental Aspects on its website and also puts out a Safety, Health and Environment Annual Report.



Oil Fire

Oil Fire

Oil Lake

Satellite Image of Kuwait before Invasion
August 1990

Satellite Image of Smoke cover over Kuwait
February 1991

Satellite Image of Kuwait after Fires had been Extinguished
The Smoke has drifted over the Persian Gulf to other countries and much of Kuwait is covered in oil.
November 1991