Ecocide in Kuwait

Randy Thomas is an environmentalist and journalist who founded the Gulf Environmental Response Team. Metta Spencer interviewed him upon his return from the Persian Gulf at the end of May.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1991-07-01 12:00:00

RANDY THOMAS: One result of the Gulf war is the biggest environmental catastrophe in modern history. Oil slicks have devastated over half the Saudi coast and the wetlands. I flew twice along 220 miles of coastland. You would think water had never existed there. Twelve million tons of crude oil burn every day; there is a smoke cloud stretching from Kuwait to Karachi. Iranians are getting most of the smoke. I heard the first broadcast about black rain falling on Iran in January, after the allied bombing of Basra. But black snow falls in the Himalayas, and the 600 oil wells set ablaze by Saddam's vandals are causing climatic change in Kuwait. I drove from Iraq under sunshine, 43 degrees celsius, into Kuwait, where the temperature fell to around 22 degrees. We've been seeing fluctuations in climate and this addition of carbon is going to cause even wilder swings. A high pressure system has formed over Kuwait. We'll know by the end of June whether it will divert the monsoon winds and cause the rain to fall into the Indian Ocean, rather than onto the crops of the Asian sub-continent, where hundreds of millions of lives are at risk. We and Earth Trust were the only people engaged in hands-on environmental work in this disaster. A New Zealand ornithologist and I went into the office of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, which had been destroyed by the Iraqis, and salvaged papers on an oil spill emergency contingency plan, developed by the Kuwait government. It outlined the wild life habitats most at risk on the coast, and steps to protect it in case of an oil spill. That office was booby trapped; we found a mine in these papers a week later.

METTA SPENCER: For what purpose?

THOMAS: Spite. For five weeks in Kuwait City I was never in a place where anything around me was intact. Every building, every window, every car, every boat, burned, vandalized. The beaches were mined where we tried to survey for the annual bird migration. Doctors receive four people a day who are blown to pieces. Hundreds of camels, animals, shepherds, soldiers have suffered the same fate. I'm afraid of walking on sand. It's going to take me a while.

SPENCER: The army must have been driven by some kind of motivation.

THOMAS: In the last three weeks of the war, many soldiers were starving; that's when the looting began. They hadn't been paid or fed for seven months. Some of the Kuwaitis gave water to the Iraqi soldiers, who were just kids.

The cluster bombs have turned the desert into a death trap for generations. These bombs explode 300 feet in the air, bombs the size of your fist spray out. Not all of them explode however, so where you see white canisters out in the desert, you know cluster bombs are nearby. The early sandstorms of summer are beginning to cover them and the munitions left by the ton by the Iraqis. One Kuwaiti Ph.D. said he's been bringing his family out for years to enjoy the desert but he can never leave the road again. We drove over a cluster bomb one night. Luckily, it sank into the sand; if it had exploded I wouldn't be here now. A lot of trained people have to go to the desert and get at it before these sands drift over.

SPENCER: Tell me more about the environmental impact.

THOMAS: Desertification has been accelerated by tank tracks and fortifications. There are ditches eight kilometres long, full of oil. We spotted them from the air, then went out and shut off twelve pipes leading into a trench. The pipes were empty at the time, but the valves were open. We warned the government to pump the trenches out before the high tides of spring wash the oil into the Gulf.

We reported a new oil slick off Kuwait, which we assume was coming from the Basra area. It threatened two of the three working desalination plants in south and central Kuwait. It has since stopped flowing.

Nothing had prepared me to stand in oil fields with hundreds of wells burning with a sound like jet engines. Under this black overcast it was raining oil. Hundreds of square kilometres are affected, especially northern Kuwait up by the border and southern Kuwait near Kuwait City, heavy impacts on maybe a quarter of the country. We suggested to the royal family that they call for international assistance and put these fires out within three months. Evacuate people from Akamani, which is in the biggest burning field. We interviewed about 800 people. Most wanted to be relocated because their livestock, pets, and trees were dying, their children were sick, and flocks of birds were falling dead out of the sky. The survey also took in seven other districts.

SPENCER: Will the Emir evacuate them?

THOMAS: No. They talk about settling 5,000 oil workers in Akamani. We suggested that they wait until all the fires were out and they had their sanitation services restored. But now Kuwaitis trying to get back into the country are meeting at the airport the Kuwaitis trying to flee the country.

SPENCER: We hear of a lot of people taking holidays.

THOMAS: This is no time for a holiday from cleanup. We need an international effort comparable to the war effort. We suggested that they ask the allied troops to work on environmental cleanup while they're waiting to go home. The army assisted us immediately and wholeheartedly when we requested a truck to drag these oil booms south. They would willingly do more work but it isn't in their orders. Fifteen hundred marines went down the Saudi coast, cleaning beaches so the turtles could come ashore and lay their eggs. Very critical work, because the green turtles are endangered. When I was in Amsterdam I asked Holland to push for this at the U.N. I don't know who will take the lead. Frankly, the U.N. is part of the problem now. The U.N. Environmental Protection people said there was not enough data on toxic effects of the smoke and there was no danger to human health. They sent a study team. I told them, this is not a problem to be studied, it's an emergency to be acted on. This same plan includes $10,000 a month salaries.

As the oil settles into the water table and contaminates the ground water in Kuwait, as the desalination plants are hit by oil slicks, the stage is being set for a water crisis. Twelve million Gulf residents depend on desalination plants, living artificially on the edge of the desert in a salt sea. I opened a bottle of distilled, so-called pure water from a Saudi Arabian source and took a whiff. You could put it in your gas tank. I wore a respirator almost all the time I was outdoors. I even slept with it.

SPENCER: Do many people do that?

THOMAS: I was the only one. Some people wore filter masks. Respirators and filter masks are a little hard to come by, but I got mine in Kuwait. Almost no one was wearing them. What denial! If you're standing there talking to someone and soot is falling on your skin, spotting the person's white robes with oil, he says, "Why are you wearing that mask?" Oil runs down your windshield as you drive! A filter mask gives high protection against about 90 percent of the particulates. None of the gas, but the real problem is the particulates.

People said, "It's too uncomfortable, you can't wear that thing!" But I did. If the new world order involves wearing a gas mask the rest of our lives, we won't enjoy it. But tens of thousands of lives are at stake. In recent weeks, with animals dropping dead, people were changing and asking me where they could get a filter mask. They want the government to supply masks, and they're keeping their children indoors. Of course, their children won't wear them.

SPENCER: Is indoors much better than outdoors?

THOMAS: Yes, if your air conditioner is off, but it's getting hot. Air conditioner filters become solid petroleum gunk. Plants and canaries are dying in living rooms in Kuwait City. A women in our office has lost eight of her ten cats, and the other two are sick.

SPENCER: What about civil rights in Kuwait?

THOMAS: We moved out of the hotel into an apartment overlooking the fires, where our Palestinian houseboy and his father were taken away by the secret police. We've asked Amnesty International to help. They are setting up an office. Non-Kuwaiti women are frightened by the high incidence of rape and assault. There are door to door searches for "enemies of the Emir." A hotel manager told me that the looting by the allies (meaning the Egyptians) is worse than that by the Iraqis, though I doubt that. The Saudi troops are feared the most for rapes and assaults, as well as Kuwaiti troops and civilians dressed in army gear and carrying arms.

SPENCER: Civilian who?

THOMAS: Kuwaitis, beating Palestinians. Below our apartment one night, police cars were shooting at a Palestinian as he ran down the alley. There were gunfights in our district for our last three or four nights between rival factions, Palestinians and Kuwaitis-or Kuwaiti factions, pro- and anti-government. If the troops are with-drawn, civil war may erupt.

Some Palestinians cooperated fully with the Iraqi troops and helped loot equipment from universities; they are being rounded up and tortured. We may see the forced expulsion of Palestinians and other non-nationals, which would end all hope of reconstructing Kuwait soon. The Palestinians are engineers and managers.

SPENCER: You were in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

THOMAS: And Kuwait, and a short way into Iraq. We were up in Saffwon, a border city, which used to be part of Kuwait, and now Iraq.

SPENCER: I suppose Saudi Arabia never experienced great impact.

THOMAS: There were the American troops killed by the SCUD missile, which I heard explode from my hotel in Bahrain. This war was engineered by the world's biggest petroleum addict to break the backs of the richest oil states. He succeeded very well, so Saudi Arabia is for the first time forced to go into the world's markets in search of capital-loans of billions of dollars, risking the wrath of its fundamentalist faction who, with the Koran, insist that you may not loan or borrow money at interest.

Kuwait was set up, and that idiot Saddam Hussein walked right into it. Now the oil countries are beholden to the U.S. for liberating Kuwait and protecting Saudi Arabia. Some of the more learned Kuwaitis felt they had been set up, but they had been brutally occupied and the allies, particularly the Americans, had expelled the occupiers and liberated them, so they felt ambivalent gratitude. The night before the invasion, a newspaper said that Kuwait was going to pay several million dollars to Iraq and the problem would be settled. One guy told me that when he got up the next morning there was an Iraqi soldier in his garden. It happened that fast.

Now the American companies are invited into Kuwait to participate in the postwar production of oil. That would have been unthinkable before the war. The Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian oil interests have been broken; the Iraqi military machine has been damaged but was left intact, as was Saddam himself, in order to avert a debacle-a Kurdish uprising, destabilizing Turkey and Iran. If the Kurds or the Shi'ite revolt had been successful, the region would have been upset, from Saudi to Bahrain to Amman. Troops and material were spared in order to put down these uprisings. A lot of dirty political games, corporate deals were made: we liberated your country, so we get the contracts to do the firefighting.

SPENCER: You think it is possible to get those fires out in three months?

THOMAS: Yes. The Iranians in particular are very skilled. With eight to twelve teams they could put the fires out in three months. But their efforts to approach the Kuwaiti government have been frustrated.

SPENCER: If it can be done, why won't it be done?

THOMAS: Americans and other Allies have to be repaid for this war with contracts. The Texans consider it their turf. They're going to get rich, they told me-as if cash mattered if you get cancer (they don't wear any masks). But now foreign workers are coming in to put out the fires, and they're upset. Two weeks ago the Kuwait government invited all international agencies to the Gulf. No one is working in the northern oil fields on at least two hundred fires. I'm not privy to those manoeuvres, but the Allies have to be repaid for this war in terms of contracts.

SPENCER: No matter how long it takes?

THOMAS: If you get paid by the day, the longer the better. The environ-ment's not a priority. Getting a few wells back into production, that's the priority. When you put a fire out, get the well back into production before you go to the next one.

We went to the government to get pumper trucks started, draining oil pools. There's one pumper truck in Kuwait. We did an inventory.

SPENCER: Do you know where there is other equipment?

THOMAS: In Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, there's all kinds of clean-up equipment. I don't know how to move the Gulf governments to act. I guess they have to perceive it to be in their self-interest. This environmental catastrophe is going to destabilize the region's climate and return to haunt them. In about five or six years, we will see a major conflict again, over water.

I was in Saudi Arabia when a Finnish firm tried to get in an oil skimmer and was held up for seven days at the border, running around getting stamps and papers. The guy said, "Gee, we're trying to clean up the oil in your country!" They're not interested. And the governments responsible for this whole scenario refuse to take any responsibility for the aftermath. If they fought this war to stabilize the region, they have failed. Saddam remains in power, and the environmental crisis is going to push these states into new conflict.

I went there because I was concerned with the wildlife. People have committed all kinds of follies in that region for a long time, but the wildlife is totally innocent. The migrations of millions of birds this year never arrived. One of the last communications I had with any creature in that country was with a purple heron-a survivor of a flock that had come up from the south, flying alone over the desert. She had seen a pool out in the desert and had come down to cool off, refresh, maybe find a mate-and landed in a pool of crude oil. We drove up not too long after. The bird was covered with oil, could not remove itself from the tarpit, and was baking under the hot sun, totally distressed. We had a CNN camera crew, so we videotaped this creature. It's devastating footage. I was looking right into her eyes, having communication. And I promised this heron that it would not die in vain, that I would take her voice out into the world. Around that heron we counted over seventy birds that had landed in the oil pool and dragged themselves to shore or up under bushes and then died. There would be countless more at the bottom of this pool. These oil pools continue to spread across the desert as we speak.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1991

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1991, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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