The Environmental Effects of the Iraq War

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.