Iraq's Toxic Shipwrecks

By Brown, Valerie J. | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Iraq's Toxic Shipwrecks


Brown, Valerie J., Environmental Health Perspectives


Iraq's coastline consists of a 36-mile stretch along the north end of the Persian Gulf. The country has only two deep-water ports, Umm Qasr and Az Zubayr. Three wars--the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, the 1991 Gulf War, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003--have cluttered northern gulf waters with a welter of sunken ships, many of which still hold petroleum products, unexploded ordnance, and possibly rocket fuel, propellants, and toxic chemicals. Many of the ships are leaking. Little is known about the environmental health consequences of these marine obstacles and their contents, but a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) looks at the potential environmental hazards posed by the sunken ships.

In preparing Iraqi Waterway Project Wreck Removal: Environmental Damage Limitation Survey, published in October 2004, a UNDP team assisted by International Atomic Energy Agency marine experts and two French water pollution agencies inspected 40 wrecks, identified 12 more by sonar, and collected 198 sediment samples for analysis. The team estimates that more than 260 sunken ships--including tankers, tugs, barges, and patrol boats--dog the local waters. "Virtually all of these vessels are slowly leaking substances that are damaging to marine life and people alike," states the report. "Even if the vessel was not carrying a hazardous cargo, the engine room will typically contain substances such as fuel oil, lubricating oil, battery acid, hydraulic fluid, and asbestos."

Silting is a major problem in Iraqi ports, as with most harbors. But dredging cannot proceed safely or commerce resume fully until more of the wrecks have been cleared away--a process made complex and dangerous by the possibility of ordnance detonation and the turbidity produced by the strong gulf current. The current flows counterclockwise toward Kuwait, and it may carry pollution toward Kuwaiti desalination plants along the Persian Gulf coast. Approximately 70-90% of the people in the gulf region get their fresh water from desalination plants, according to The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait and the Persian Gulf. This report appears in the Trade and the Environment Database, a project of American University in Washington, D.C.

The UNDP found that oil is the worst problem related to the sunken ships, stating that "significant oil pollution was painfully evident even without any sample analysis. …

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