Aside from the infrastructure damage and civilian suffering and death implied by the cynical term "collateral damage," all wars have environmental effects. The extent of environmental damage depends on a war's duration, the weapons used, and the type of terrain and ecosystems in which it takes place.
Now that the main combat in the Iraq war is over, the final environmental toll of the fighting can be uncovered through comprehensive on-the-ground analyses and the release of previously privileged information. Neither of these steps has yet occurred, but, based on my experiences in 1991, when I led a UN team studying the environmental effects of the first Persian Gulf war, several initial observations are possible.
Some reports described the sandstorms in south central Iraq in the first week of the war as "sent by Allah against the aggressors." In fact, US and British troops may have only themselves to blame. Increased sand drift was one of the effects noted during and after the first Gulf war. This is because the desert in the region normally has a crust, what Arabs call "the desert skin," consisting of sand and clay particles that have been baked together, or sintered, by the heat and sun.
Sometimes this crust is strong enough to carry a person and sometimes not, much like the hard ice crust that develops on snow in colder climates. Under the crust, the sand particles are loose. Crushed by the bands and wheels of military vehicles, explosions of bombs and mines, and digging of trenches and walls, the desert's crust is broken and the fine sand particles beneath it are exposed to the wind.
In the first Gulf war, this resulted in "rolling" sand dunes, sometimes ten meters high and several kilometers long, that covered roads and buildings. Finer particles became airborne and caused environmental and health problems across northeastern Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and southwestern Iraq. It took between five and ten years for this effect to abate.
The unusual intensity of the sandstorms in Iraq is most likely the result of the same process. But the consequences of the increased mobility of sand are likely to be far worse than they were in Kuwait, where in the absence of significant agriculture and forests, the impact was mainly on technical systems and infrastructure. In Iraq, a large agricultural sector operates on fairly marginal lands, where farmers fight a constant battle against salt intrusion and face severe water shortages. Drifting sand may frequently tip the balance to unsustainability, threatening the livelihoods of entire districts.
Another serious problem is the use of ozone-depleting substances, such as halons and freons. Halogenated fire retardants are added to the fuel tanks of combat airplanes, causing massive damage to the stratospheric ozone layer. Some 60-80,000 combat missions were reportedly been flown in the Iraq war, releasing an estimated 2,000 tons of ozone-destroying halons. Stealth bombers and fighters, meanwhile, use freon fuel additives to reduce the number of exhaust particles that could otherwise be detected by enemy sensors.
Following international agreements such as the Montreal Protocol on the Protection of the Ozone Layer, global emissions of ozone-depleting substances have otherwise been substantially reduced. The Iraq war emissions may therefore reach the equivalent of three months of normal global civilian release.
Burning oil fields were a vivid image--and a major part--of the environmental damage caused by the first Gulf war. The six or seven Iraqi fields currently ablaze are a pittance compared to the six hundred that burned in Kuwait. The smoke over Baghdad came mostly from oil deliberately burned in ditches and trenches to obscure potential targets from air attack. Those emissions were insignificant from a global or regional point of view, but oil-drenched particles will likely have adverse health effects for local inhabitants and combatants. Such effects could be reinforced by the addition of metals to the oil in order to confuse bombs' guidance systems.
During the war in Kuwait, the Iraqis pumped massive amounts of oil into the Persian Gulf, resulting in the world's largest-ever oil spill--some fifty times the amount released from the tanker "Prestige" off the Spanish coast last fall. Nothing similar happened this time. Similarly, large-scale bombings of Iraqi industry, power plants, and infrastructure in 1991 resulted in substantial chemical spills into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Nothing on a similar scale has been reported in this war.
In the first Gulf war it was also found that the Iraqis' Soviet-built tanks and artillery had PCBs (poly-chlorinated biphenyls) in their hydraulic systems for the same reason that combat airplanes use halons. When destroyed, such as on the road north from Kuwait City, the PCBs leaked into the ground. The extent of destruction of Iraqi tanks during this war is not yet public information, but the same ground pollution can be expected.
Finally, most of the ammunition used in wars consists of nitrogen compounds. Whether they explode or not, these compounds are hardly benign environmentally, posing risks for both ecosystems and human health.
These initial considerations cover only a small range of the conceivable environmental effects of the Iraq war. Destroyed water and wastewater treatment facilities, use of depleted uranium in anti-tank missiles, and ground water contamination may well lead to a host of other problems.
For now, limited information makes any accurate assessment impossible. However, whichever administration governs Iraq in the future must be prepared to face up to an environmental debt--the cost of restoring what can be restored--that will be a substantial liability for years to come.