Kuwait: War's Sooty Aftermath

March 20, 1991

An acrid cloud of black smoke hung over Kuwait City on Monday, the result of up to 600 oil wells set on fire by Iraqi soldiers in their "scorched earth" policy. It was the worst day yet of pollution from the fiery oil fields. Visibility was cut to 500 yards; the city's temperature plunged from near-90 degrees to 60 degrees; at noon, drivers had to use their car lights to navigate the streets.

This is Iraq's final gift to the Kuwaiti people: an environmental nightmare that poses grave health hazards to those in the country and people in nearby nations as well.

The Iraqis, who fled Kuwait Feb. 26, set explosives off at 70 to 100 oil wells a day before leaving. Kuwait Oil Co. executive Ahmad Murad estimates that between 4.5 million and 5 million barrels of oil a day are being burned off, the equivalent of nearly $100 million in lost revenue every 24 hours. If, as expected, it takes two years to put out all the oil fires, as much as 10 percent of Kuwait's 90-billion-barrel oil reserves may be lost.

Damage is by no means limited to Kuwait. Acid rain has spread over an area from Bulgaria, Romania and the Soviet Union on the west coast of the Black Sea to the Indian subcontinent. Soot from the "dirtiest burn you can imagine," with little oxygen consumed and maximum amounts of toxic gas produced, is being pumped into the air over Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran and the sensitive Persian Gulf marine habitat. Traces of the soot have shown up all over the Northern Hemisphere, and scientists say only 10 percent of the emissions are being converted to soot. Clouds are gathering over Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In Kuwait itself, old people and the very young are turning up with respiratory problems doctors there say they cannot alleviate. On a bad day such as Monday, experts compare the pollution to trying to breathe in a giant car exhaust or smoking a dozen packs of cigarettes a day.

Climatologists discount effects on the world's weather, but observers already see a 10-degree drop in a normally mild spring's temperatures.

Cleaning up this murky mess is a job only now getting started. Kuwait's sabotaged electric generators, needed to power pumps bringing water to fight the fires, may not be brought back on line for several weeks. Economists say Kuwait's infrastructure can be repaired but at a cost of $30 billion to $50 billion. Kuwait has the money, thanks to investments made outside the country of $90 billion. Getting the job done will require major help from the technologically advanced countries, especially the United States. Yet the impact of those burning oil fields could be felt in the Persian Gulf long after the last well is capped.

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