Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Mideast Ecology Notes

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Mideast Ecology Notes

Article excerpt

MIDEAST ECOLOGY NOTES

As Kuwait Caps Last Oil Well Fire, Regional Cleanup Goes Into High Gear

On Nov. 6, the oil fire cleanup crews working in Kuwait capped the last of the 732 wells damaged or set ablaze by Iraq during its occupation of Kuwait. The nine-month cleanup effort took far less time than earlier anticipated, but it still cost the Kuwaiti government roughly $1.5 billion, according to figures released by Kuwait's oil minister, Hamoud Abdullah Al-Raqba. Further, much still remains to be done to restore the country's environment and the damaged waters of the Gulf, according to a number of environmental experts.

Serious threats to the region's entire ecological system, particularly its native and migratory wildlife, will linger for years, according to a report prepared on-site by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). "The biggest immediate threat is to migratory birds," according to John Walsh, the society's international projects director who toured the region in late October to assess the long-term outlook for the region's environment and wildlife.

For example, while the wells have been capped, much of the oil that spilled remains in numerous man-made lakes throughout the country, according to Walsh. Specifically, lakes of oil near the Burgan oil fields in the south range in size from 20 feet across to more than 100 feet, with some more than 6 feet deep, he said. In another section of the country, one such lake has been measured as being a full 25 kilometers long and 6 kilometers wide.

These "lakes" pose a serious threat to migratory birds, Walsh said, many of which mistake the pooled oil for water. "An estimated two million wading birds migrate through the Gulf at this time of year, with the peak expected in January," he said. "While passing over the oil fields, they are deceived by light reflecting off the surfaces of the lakes, and dive into them expecting water. On one inspection of a relatively small area, I found four species of birds dead in the oil."

Other problems uncovered by Walsh during his Gulf visit include:

-- The oil killed much of the country's insect life when it rained onto the sand and vegetation surrounding the fields -- removing a key source of food for the migratory birds.

-- Hardened oil remains along the coast of Saudi Arabia, forming mats of tar several inches thick in some places. This has denuded the area's beaches of all forms of life, including the crabs, shrimp and mollusks that are essential food stocks for migratory birds. …

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