The Environmental Impacts of the Gulf War 1991

Linden O, Jerneloev A, & Egerup J (2004). The Environmental Impacts of the Gulf War 1991. IIASA Interim Report. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: IR-04-019


Download (679kB) | Preview


The environmental consequences of the Gulf War in 1991 affected the air, the marine environment, and the terrestrial ecosystem. Various scenarios and forecasts had been made before the war about the possible and probable impacts under different conditions. The follow-up studies have showed a rather different picture than what had been forecasted. When considering the various aspects of air and atmospheric pollution, in brief summary, the following observations have been made:

In early 1991 more than 800 oil wells were blown up, of these more than 600 caught fire and burned with flames and about 50 wells gushed oil onto the ground. During the period up to October 1991 all the wells were capped. The maximum amount of oil and gas in the oil fires was about 355,000 tons and 35 million m3 respectively per day. The soot emissions for the burning oil and gas has been estimated to about 20,000 tons per day and the total SO2 emission about 24,000 tons per day. The CO2 emission from the burning oil and gas in Kuwait has been estimated to about 130 to 140 million tons corresponding to 2-3% of the global annual anthropogenic contribution from the use of fossil and recent fuels and only 0.1% of the total global CO2 emission. Levels of particles in the air a few kilometers from the burning oil fields was in the order of about 10 5 per cm3. this corresponds to 10% of the global contribution from anthropogenic burning of recent and fossil fuels. Most of the soot particles accumulated at altitudes between 1000 and 3000 meters and very little contamination reached higher than 5000 meters. As a result the soot did not spread over large areas but fell out with rain and dew mostly over the Arabian Peninsula. The high volume of particles in the air had a very pronounced effect on the climate in Kuwait and in the neighboring countries. Temperatures were up to 10 degrees C lower than under normal years. Soot and oil covered extensive areas in Kuwait, Northern Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. the vegetation as well as wildlife was exposed to this fallout but no or very scattered information is available about environmental aspects.

The oil from the oil wells formed networks of rivers and lakes on land. The total volume of oil din these lakes and rivers has been estimated to between 10 and 20 million tons. During 1991, up to 200 km2 of ground was covered with oil forming about 250 lakes. In 1992 the figure had decresaed to about 50 km2, partly due to weathering, penetrating of oil into the ground, coverage of oil by dust and sand, and physical removal. The oil has subsequently the ground to varying depth, depending on the nature of underlying soil. The total area of oil lakes calculated based on satellite image in 1998 was about 24 km2. However, at that stage much of the surface area of the oil lakes were covered by sand and could hardly be observed from the sky.

The "marine environment" was exposed to large quantities of petroleum hydrocarbons, the volume of the spills has been estimated to between 1 and 1.7 million tons. the oil was released from tank farms on land (Al Ahmadi North), oil loading terminals (Sea Island and Mina Al-Bakr (Iraq)) and from oil carriers anchored along the Kuwait coast. the spill was broken up from several smaller spills which contaminated most of the Saudi Arabian coastline. About 700 km of Saudi Arabian shoreline consisting of sand, gravel, wetlands, lagoons, and muddy tidal flats and a total of the surfacve area of about 34 km2 was contaminated. Some oil ended up on the beaches of Kuwait, Iran, Bahrain, and Qatar but generally these countries were less affected. The oil on the SAudi Arabian coastline ende up in shallow lagoons, wetlands and flats covered with vegetation. Here the oil caused considerable damage and caused primarily by the physical characteristics of the oil on the vegetation and on animals in the intertidal zone. Hence most of the mangroves and marshes in the wetlands along the affected coast was destroyed by the oil. Fifty to 90% of the fauna of these areas, mainly crabs, amphipoda and molluscs, were also killed by the oil. Already within a year natural cleanup process had removed most of the oil from hard surfaces and decresed the quantities considerably in areas with sand and mud. About three years after the spill most of the fauna had re-colonized the lower sections of the beach, and the recovery on the upper sections were underway. About 10 years after the spill, weathered and underground oil were still present on some beaches.

The large-scale clean-up that was carried out after the spill in many areas did contribute to incresing the damage and spreading the oil into previously unaffected areas. Studies from different subtidal areas along the Saudi Arabian coast on sand, mud and rock bottoms and in sea-grass beds showed minor or no effects at all among the fauna and flora at 1 to 6 meters depth and deeper areas. Several investigations were carried out to study the impacts on soral reefs along the coast but these studies did not reveal any significant effects, particularly in the reefs off the Saudi coast. Also the fish fauna appeared to have survived intact.

About 75 to 80% of the sun's radiation was absorbed and the remainder was scatttered by the smoke in the super composite plume and this resulted in a drop in the temperature by up to 10 degrees C in Kuwait and in the Northern Saudi Arabia. Also as far away as 250 km from the burning Kuwait oil fileds a reduction in mid day temperature of 5-8 degrees C was recorded. Also seawater temperatures in the Gulf were considerably lower during 1991 as conpared to previous years. This drop of seawater temperature during spring-summer period of 1991 was considered more damaging to fish and prawns than the oil spills.

Seabirds and waders were affected by direct oiling of feathers and due to intake of oil primarily through preening. It has been estimated that between 22 and 50% of the populations of several species of cormorants and grebes died as a result of the spill. Investigations of the presence of waders on the shores made during the acute phase of the war a reduction by almost 100% and most of the birds found were contaminated by oil. It was estimated that about 100,000 waders were killed directly or indirectly by the oil spill in 1991.

Investigations of the marine turtles showed that green turtles nested at normal rates and with a hatching success similar to the figures for the figures for the years previous to the spill. For hawksbills the number of nests were normal but the hatching rate was much lower than normal.

Approximately 50 dugongs and several times as many dolphins were found dead on the beaches of Saudi Arabia after that spill.

In total over 84,000 tons of bombs were dropped over an area of about 4,000 square miles during 43 days of war. The military casualties and the allied side was 149 dead and another 513 wounded. In the years after the war between 50 and 100 allied soldiers were killed in connection with mine clearance. The total loses of Iraqi soldiers were much higher, probably more than 100,000 during 43 days of war. Nearly 25,000 died during the mass retreat. In addition at least another 100,000 Iraqi military were wounded, the majority of whom later died due to lack of medical facilities and medicine.

Between 400 and 600 Kuwaiti civilians were killed directly during the war. In addition an astimated 2,000 died due to consequences of the war. Between 15,000 and 16,000 civilians spent time in prison during and after the war. In additio there have been more than 1,500 civilian mine and ammunition victims in Kuwait since August 1990. Furthermore a large portion of the Kuwaiti population suffered various psychosomatic disorders, so called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) several years after the war. Another consequence of the war is that crime and violence has become more common in Kuwait.

Between 2,500 to 3,000 Iraqi civilians died directly as a result of the allied bombardment. However, Iraqi civilians suffered much larger casualties as indirect consequences of the war dring the period 1991-2001. Figures are not known but several hundred thousand civilian, including infants and children, have probably died due to the lack of medicine, hospital supplies, and medical services. Other studies indicate that more than 46,900 children under five years age died between January and August 1991 due to the war and its aftermath. In addition about 100,000 Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south of Iraq died and many more suffered from heavy repression in the civil unrest immediately after the war. Other reports indicate increseased child mortality among children in Iraq, in excess of 40,000 per year during the period 1992-1998.

Item Type: Monograph (IIASA Interim Report)
Research Programs: Directorate (DIR)
Forestry (FOR)
Depositing User: IIASA Import
Date Deposited: 15 Jan 2016 02:17
Last Modified: 25 Oct 2016 17:44

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313