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Mideast: Persian Gulf Lives With Polluting Legacy Of Oil

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A stormy day in the Persian Gulf, with the waves breaking on a desert beach far from any human habitation.

But despite the remote beauty of the scene, the hand of man has left a heavy imprint here. On this particular day the breaking waves bring to shore strands of a dark, greasy substance. Some of the gulls are having trouble flying, as the sticky mess stains and clogs their feathers.

It's oil, the mineral which has brought fabulous wealth to much of the Middle East, but also a legacy of problems.

According to the London-based environment organization Greenpeace International, constant small-scale oil pollution such as this is one of the chronic problems throughout the Persian Gulf. The oil comes from leaking wells and pipelines, from tanker vessels cleaning their tanks, from refinery discharges, and from oil spills large and small.

In a more dramatic way, the power of oil to pollute was made clear to the world in the Gulf War of 1991, when retreating Iraqi forces set fire to hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells. For months television viewers around the globe watched as oil industry fire-fighters battled to contain the raging flames. Millions of tons of polluting gasses were released into the earth's atmosphere, and local populations were beset by respiratory problems. Scientists are unsure of the impact on the earth's atmosphere of such big volumes of hydro-carbons in so short a time, but many believe it has added to the accelerating pace of climate change.

Then, when the fires were over, there were the sad images of trucks churning through black mud as the spilling oil soaked into the desert sand.

The action of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in ordering the Kuwaiti oil wells to be torched must rank as one of the great environmental crimes. But it is not the first time in the Gulf that oil has been a target of warfare. In the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, both sides tried to hit each other's oil installations as a means of inflicting economic loss.

In one case, an Iranian oil well damaged by Iraqi action leaked oil into the sea for several years before it was capped.

So is the Gulf region's environment destined to be gradually degraded by oil, the very substance which brings it wealth? According to Greenpeace, the picture is not as bleak as that. London-based senior oil campaigner Paul Horsman says that although areas of the Kuwaiti desert still look like tarred car parks, the hot desert sun has been able to evaporate the lighter elements of the oil. The heavy residues will remain for decades, possibly a century, but will eventually disappear. At sea, wave motion and oxygen help to break down oil quicker than on land: "The environment is not killed when you have an oil spill, or chronic sources of pollution, because crude oil is a natural substance and there are bacteria, there are natural ways of dealing with it. The point is the environment clearly does cope, but is certainly the poorer, because you don't get the diversity of species, because there are only a few species capable of withstanding certain levels of oil pollution". Horsman says crustaceans like crabs and lobsters are extremely sensitive to the presence of oil in sea water. Mammals and sea bird populations suffer, and fish schools move away. This of course adds an economic dimension to environmental degradation. For instance, the big Saudi Arabian shrimp fields, decimated by a major oil spill seven years ago, are only now recovering in size and are still suspected of being tainted by pollution. In other words, the shrimp fields have lost part of their economic value.

If oil is available in great quantities in the Mideast, another and more basic substance -- namely water -- is not. Horsman says:

"Water is scarcer than oil and indeed more expensive, and it has been said by many commentators that any future conflict or wars in the region could be caused by the access to water. In say Saudi Arabia and many other places they rely increasingly on desalination of sea water for their fresh water supply. That of course was one of the major concerns during the gulf war, to try and protect the sea intakes for the desalination plants".

The more traditional water sources in the region have been artesian wells and bores which bring to the surface ancient ground water. But these aquifers have been widely over-used in recent decades and are in decline. Pollution of underground supplies is also becoming a problem, particularly by salination.

The eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus for instance is estimated to have only half the ground water reserves it possessed in 1960. Environmentalists fear that increased use of underground aquifers now -- a time of acute drought in Cyprus -- could lead to sea water seeping in and mixing with the remaining fresh water.

The problem is that the island needs more water urgently. The authorities there estimate that surface water supplies will be exhausted by the end of this year unless there are good rains.

Some of the ideas put forward for solving Cyprus's problem read like science fiction: for instance there's a suggestion that fresh water could be imported from as far away as Canada.

Water has always been a problem for the Mideast, and even with the help of modern technologies, it appears that life-giving substance will always remain scarce and precious.